By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
What makes the novel Don Quixote such a classic work of literature is its ability to speak to men across all Ages. It is indeed a hard heart that when reaching the conclusion of the novel, is not saddened not only by the death of the Man of La Mancha, who one has come to love, but saddened, also because of Don Quixote’s shattering awakening, that his life’s quest, his dream, has not come to fruition; and everything that he is lived and fought for, has fallen apart. He dies believing that his friends were correct in their perception of him being delusional. The reader recognizes Don Quixote as a man of extremes, but one can also see in this ‘knight-errant’, glimpses of oneself. How often do we build, and see what we have built up destroyed; how often do we aspire, only to see our aspirations thwarted; how often do we love, only to find our loves unrequited; how often do we desire, only to find our desires forlorn. The human condition is such that in every age, we perceive ourselves to be a different creature. As a child we are joyful – the world has little care or trepidation; as an adolescent we are indestructible, life is long, and we cannot be conquered; as a young adult we seek the honour of society; as a parent we wish our children to surpass us; when our children leave, and as we get older, we recollect the opportunities that were lost, and the brevity of life. Every succeeding age sees us looking back in hind-sight at the foolishness of what has gone by. All of us, share similar illusions to The Man of La Mancha, living according to ideals, that invariably a neighbour perceives as hollow or foolish.
So many life lessons are taught throughout the course of the novel, as in the instance, when Sancho, is appointed Governor of an island. Caught up in a scenario where they are being played as fools – the two central characters of the novel, Don Quixote and Sancho, knowing none of the jest, are in deep conversation as to how one should view such a post of esteem. Don Quixote’s instructions are as good for Sancho as they are to any father blessing his son or daughter as they go into the world. These two men may be fools – but there is so much wisdom in their foolishness: “’First of all, my son, you are to fear God; for therein lies wisdom, and, being wise, you cannot go astray in anything. And in the second place, you are to bear in mind who you are and seek to know yourself, which is the most difficult knowledge to acquire that can be imagined. Knowing yourself, you will not be puffed up, like the frog that sought to make himself as big as the ox. Do this, and the memory of the fact that you once herded pigs in your own country will come to serve as the ugly feet to the tail of your folly.’” (Cervantes, 1949, pp. 924 – 925).
We come to understand as we read the novel, that every man is both wise, and a fool; for we are wise, when we act in accord with our highest self, striving amidst the cacophony and menagerie of what life throws at us to be the best that we can possibly be; we are fools when in the face of those who scoff at virtue, we turn tail, and skulk into a corner, hoping that we will remain unnoticed.
At the heart of the novel Don Quixote is a theme that should strike at the core of every man’s heart. When we participate with the other characters who are mourning, and surrounding Don Quixote’s deathbed, we understand that the body that is giving up the spirit is in fact us; in the future. Like Don Quixote, we would have had our Impossible Dreams; ambitions, motivations, and loves – things that seemed for us paramount to our life, at the time. We may have forgotten these ideals and these muses over the course of our lives; however, at the point of a man’s death is seen the sum of how true he has been to his life desires.
The fourth century Archbishop of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom, in one of his breathtaking homilies once opened up a polemic about the nature of foolishness as perceived by the secular eyes of this world. Stretching analogy to the point of tension, Chrysostom spoke about Christ that: “Only a fool would attempt to change the world with a simple message of love and peace. So we can conclude that Jesus was a fool. Only fools would agree to follow such a man, and then continue his mission even after he had been killed. So we can conclude that the apostle were fools. Only fools would take seriously the message which a bunch of fools were preaching, and accept that message. So we can conclude that all of us are fools. All this is hardly surprising. God did not choose a wise philosopher to proclaim the Gospel, but a humble carpenter. And for his apostles he chose fishermen and tax collectors, can we claim to be any better? Of course not. Even those among us who have been educated know, that in relation to the Gospel our education is worthless, so let all happily admit we are fools. Then we will happily commit ourselves to trying to change the world. Yet weren’t those apostles cowardly and timid? Aren’t we are equally afraid of trying to persuade strangers to change their lives? Doesn’t the crucifixion of Christ give us ample reason to be frightened? Yes; but His resurrection gives us superhuman courage.” (Chrysostom, 1996, p. 52).
So many of the greatest men and women who have ever lived, have been perceived by their peers as the greatest fools of their time: Socrates in Ancient Athens, Francis in medieval Italy, Gandhi on the sub-Continent, Abraham Lincoln in the war-torn United States. Each of these individuals only became a heroic figure, after their death, after the dust had time to settle on the frightened collective consciences of their time. The fool is the concrete reality of the creed; that a man can be in the world but not of it. Chrysostom’s homily challenges us, as does Cervantes’ novel – for everyman wishes affirmation from peers – but some of the greatest fools who have ever lived, have been those who have understood, that the march of society approves uniformity, and will not tolerate the Truth, however how loudly she calls; if it means to walk to a beat from outside of the pace of the march.
As such to be called by God is a risk – a risk inasmuch as one is called to stand like a lighthouse, a beacon amidst the tumult of furious sea. It is also to work as a child building sandcastles speedily on the shore, knowing that all the effort that is expended is reliant on the mercy of the tide which will one day call it back as her own. It is a call to be a fool – to have an unswerving belief and commitment, to an almost, incredible, Impossible Dream.
Picture resource: http://www.visual-editions.com/articles/ve-does-don-quixote