Shimer College

May 05, 2014

The Fear of the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote

Don Quixote has survived as a living character, so to speak, as a person whose life is relevant and moving, for the last five hundred years because he is the embodiment of a fate which any thinking person ought to fear.

He read the chivalric tales and believed them; the universally understood but always unspoken assumption of these books, that they depict fantasies and imaginative dreams, went unnoticed by Quixote. He shut himself up in his room, in a tower, as it were, and was thus cut off from the world of living, interacting humans.

In this isolation, where Don Quixote did nothing but read, he came to believe that the world really was a place where concoctions of rosemary and wine can heal broken bones, malicious enchanters really can turn giants into windmills and whole armies into flocks of sheep, or where women really do want to have knights sallying forth, killing and dying in their names. He was, in short, led into a grave misunderstanding about the world because of what he read about the world.

This is a particularly sad fate, and a particularly frightening one, because we must, in some degree, base our understanding of the world on books. The degree to which people rely on books, as opposed to, for instance, experience, varies from person to person. But I, for one, rely on them a great deal, and am certain that I’m not alone. I rely on them not because they are books per se, but because they contain stories and arrangements of facts that seem to me reasonable and true. As Don Quixote shows, however, any story or any arrangement of facts can appear more real than any other, especially if it is presented beautifully, though it does not for that reason actually reflect any existing world at all.

In my own case, I think about the substantial quantity of revolutionary literature I’ve read throughout my life. There is a subtle but striking resemblance between these pamphlets, biographies, tracts, anecdotes, and the chivalric stories of valor, suffering, righteousness, etc., with which Don Quixote poisoned his mind. I look around and wonder, “Where are all the revolutionaries? Does the world not need them now more than ever? And they were so abundant in the Nineteenth Century!” And thinking of Quixote, I cannot help but admit that I also have “sallied forth,” hoping to fight oppression in very much the same way he wanted to fight evil.

And what have I come to learn from it? The world was laughing at me all the time – it still is laughing. But, as I said, I do not think that I’m alone in this. Civil rights activists have their stories as much as the Westborough Baptists, anarchists as much as police officers, postmodernists as much as Platonists.

How chivalric is the hope to fight hegemony, to universalize equality, to keep the peace, or even to live a good life? The world, I sometimes fear, is laughing at us all.


-Trevor Griffith ‘14