I’m still absorbing this book, having only just completed it recently. I think it may stick in my psyche for some time to come, even as I move on to more of Eco’s work. Aside from the murder mystery, embedded in this book are symbols, meanings, allusions, signs and signifiers. Every line, every description has multiple possible meanings or metaphorical signs. A passage toward the end of this novel stands out to me, above all others, though I’m still struggling with it’s implications. The line is as follows:
“It was the greatest library in Christendom,” William said. “Now,” he added, “the Antichrist is truly at hand, because no learning will hinder him any more. For that matter, we have seen his face tonight.”
“Whose face?” I asked, dazed.
“Jorge, I mean. In that face, deformed by hatred of philosophy, I saw for the first time the portrait of the Antichrist, which does not come from the tribe of Judas, as his heralds have it, or from a far country. The Antichrist can be born of piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them. Jorge did a diabolical thing because he loved his truth so lewdly that he dared anything in order to destroy falsehood. Jorge feared the second book of Aristotle because it perhaps really did teach how to distort the face of every truth, so that we would not become slaves of our ghosts. Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from the insane passion for the truth.”
Is this a treatise on the love of learning, or an admonition against the passion for truth? Is this a statement against truth as an end, or against close minded fundamentalism? The central line “Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them.” seems to be the key to understanding this passage. But I’m open to other interpretations. A friend of mine, A. Scott White, wrote to me after he read this, saying:
To me it’s about the danger of believing absolutely that you know the truth and deciding that you will unquestioningly champion that truth with zeal. Most true tyrants and despots believe things with great fervency. They are always wrong. Good people question their beliefs, change them, reject them.
I think he’s right about that. Even science, that bastion of knowing through rigorous testing, re-testing, and peer review (when done correctly), leaves open the possibility of new knowledge that changes current knowledge. In all cases it does this, in every case. If there were evidence enough to proclaim errancy in the law of gravity, it would be taken seriously, considered, and tested in order to establish its veracity. The only difference is the probability of that evidence coming to light.