Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Antichrist and other philosophies

“The Antichrist can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth…”

That’s one of the concluding lines in Umberto Eco’s fabulous novel, The Name of the Rose.

I’m celebrating the 30th anniversary of the publication of the English translation of the novel.  The original Italian version was published in 1980.

The novel is set in a Christian monastery in Italy in the early 14th century.  The plot unfolds in seven days in the year 1327 though the background will span many years earlier. Those were the years in which many people were burnt as heretics and witches by the Catholic Church, the most powerful religion of those days.

Eco’s novel illustrates in its own subtle way how a very innocent woman was burnt as a witch simply because she had to sell her body to two monks in the monastery in return for the food she could take home for people at home.  The monks in question are tortured as heretics, and they are not innocent anyway.  The inquisitor who orders all these punishments is not the embodiment of truth either in the conception of the novelist.

What is truth?

That’s one of the many questions raised in the novel.

Is God the truth?  God cannot be known except in one’s individual wisdom  – that’s the answer Eco gives.  Individual wisdom will not be accepted by others as the truth.  There wouldn’t be so much villainy practiced in the name of God(s) if individual wisdom were to be accepted as truth.  If there was only a single truth Eco’s protagonist would be teaching theology in Paris instead of seeking the truth in Italy!

Eco seems to imply that the real truth (which we may call God) remains beyond objective knowledge; that is, beyond science.  That truth can only be know individually.  It is a truth that remains beyond “the God of glory of whom the abbots of my order spoke to me, or of joy, as the Minorites (a heretic Christian sect) believed in those days...”  It is a God that remains even beyond piety.  We, human beings, can only see God’s shadow, the shadow of the truth.  “I shall sink into the divine shadow,” says Eco’s protagonist, “in a dumb silence and an ineffable union, and in this sinking all equality and all inequality shall be lost, and in that abyss my spirit will lose itself, and will not know the equal or the unequal, or anything else: and all differences will be forgotten.  I shall be in the simple foundation, in the silent desert where diversity is never seen, in the privacy where no one finds himself in his proper place.  I shall fall into the silent and uninhabited divinity where there is no work and no image.”

Eco’s novel which sold millions of copies in the 1980 was as mystical as that.

That’s why I’m celebrating it now.

How far away have we come from the 1980s?  To the best sellers of today?
And why?

No, I’m not going to give answers. 

There are no answers except the ones we have already in our hearts.  Buried deep there.  Buried beneath the superficiality and superfluousness that is celebrated today in the name of liberalisation and economic security.
“The only truths that are useful are instruments to be thrown away,” says one of the last pages of Eco’s novel. 

Can science be the truth? 

“... there is no order in the universe,” Eco would answer.

Whatever order is given to us is given by our science.  We created that order.  And that order will keep changing.

The villain of Eco’s novel is a monk who wants to keep knowledge stashed away in a labyrinthine library to which access is denied even to the monks of the monastery.  There is only one knowledge that matters, according to that villainous monk, and that is knowledge of God as given in the religious scriptures.  All other books are redundant.
It is this absolutism that Eco questions eloquently and powerfully in his novel. 

This is the absolutism that has created a number of religious terrorists in the late 20th century and in our own time.  This is also the kind of absolutism that has set up many a vulgar idol in the economic niches in capitalist cathedrals all over the world today including our own country. 

“A dream is a scripture, and many scriptures are nothing but dreams,” says Eco’s novel.  Dreams have their value. 

Dare to dream.  Dare to live your dream.  Even if your dream questions the absolute truths.

There is no truth except the one you have internalised. 

There is no god except the one you have understood in the deepest core of your heart.

Give the same freedom to others.  Freedom to discover their own god, their own truth. 

Don’t be an antichrist who inflicts others with his/her truths.

For more wisdom in the same vein, please read Eco’s novel.  Or simply sit and meditate.  


  1. Very nicely analysed and written Tom. May be I should also go back to reread it, I have almost forgotten it.

    I have been to some of Eco's lectures as he teaches in Bologna, but most of them time, he is very hard to follow, I get lost in the intricacies of his phrases.

    I remember that character from this book who speaks mixture of different languages. In way, I feel that Amitabh Ghosh's lascar language in Sea of Poppies, were similar to the same idea.

    1. Yes, Sunil. Salvatore in the novel speaks a language that I never understood. Yet I like the novel!

      There are so many Latin quotes in the novel that i don't understand. Yet I love the novel!

      Isn't that a mark of the greatness of the novel?

      Eco is a philosopher and hence different!

      The character I remember from the time I read it about 25 years ago is the protagonist - the fellow who thinks that truth is nobody's prerogative. I'm sure you'll agree with that view.

    2. Sunil ji, having thought about what you said, I think Eco was trying to present a very villainous character through Salvatore, the man who speaks a Latin-mixed dialect in the novel. Bernard Shaw said that the one who speaks many languages is an idiot. I agree with him. I would go to the extent of saying that the one who tries to speak a different language, especially the language of the ruling class, [Latin, in the case of Salvatore] is the most villainous character in life.

  2. Hi Tom,

    I haven't even heard about the novelist Eco; but I like the way you have made him simple, being a philosopher, for the sake of people like me.

    Yes the struggle is always the same between the absolutist and let me say the constructionist.

    ''This is also the kind of absolutism that has set up many a vulgar idol in the economic niches in capitalist cathedrals all over the world today including our own country''.

    On top of that, all over the world especially in our country there is no one truth seeker like ECO.

    1. Dear Prasanna,

      Eco is a living philosopher, a semiotist. Quite difficult to understand him. I tried reading another novel of his and gave up after trying three times. Even his "critics" don't understand him.

      You may understand "The Name of the Rose", however, if you choose to ignore the Latin that pervades it. And, of course, a bit of knowledge about the medieval period and the Catholic Church of those days will come in handy.

  3. Replies
    1. All that you need will be a bit of patience to understand Eco. To understand life. Best wishes.

  4. Science can NEVER be the truth, because it is ALWAYS a work in progress. Only people who do not understand anything about science will seek truth in it. Science does no more than keep travelling.

    Truth, however,can be discerned in math. Once something in math is proven it cannot be unproven. The logic of math is, however, incomplete; there will always be one statement in any system that cannot be proven to be right.

    God cannot be known to individual wisdom because human beings have not evolved to that extent. To think that they have is the height of VANITY. It is only to disguise this vanity it is claimed that such truths cannot be explicated to others.


    1. I won't dispute your view, Raghuram.

      When it comes to God, we are on a slippery ground simply because what is God for one may be Devil for another.


Appa is happy

Fiction “Appa is happy,” Lily said for the seventh time, or maybe eighth.   Appa smiled at Simon.   Lily’s Appa was Simon’s uncl...