Don’t let the bastards get you down. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. A Medieval Mystery with a Metaphysical Moral for our Time.

Don’t let the bastards get you down.

Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

A Medieval Mystery with a Metaphysical Moral for our Time.

Burton Weltman

“[Humanity] has unquestionably one really effective weapon, laughter.

Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution…

Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”

Mark Twain.

The Calamitous Fourteenth Century: A Distant Mirror?

“Often the step between ecstatic vision and sinful frenzy is very brief.”                                    William of Baskerville.  The Name of the Rose.

The past is prologue according to Antonio in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Fourteenth century Europe was a tempestuous prologue to modern history according to Barbara Tuchman in her seminal book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.[1] Calamity abounded, as what we call the Middle Ages ended and the Modern Era began, with most people suffering from “plague, war, taxes, brigandage, bad government, and schism in the Church.”[2]  Politics in the fourteenth century were dominated by two arrogant and grasping powers, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, each claiming global hegemony over men’s minds as well as their lands.[3]  Each sought dictatorial and even totalitarian control over the peoples of Europe.  Cold wars and hot wars were fought between them, and each employed institutionalized corruption to get their ways.[4]

Partisans of the Church and the Empire were divided by rigid ideology and theological frenzy. Both sides persecuted and executed opponents for their beliefs.  The Pope’s Inquisition routinely charged nonconformists with heresy and burned them at the stake.  The Emperor similarly enforced his will.  Both sides stoked fears of witchcraft on the part of the other and charging opponents with witchcraft “became a common means to bring down an enemy.” Accusation was tantamount to condemnation because denial was deemed to be proof of guilt, since that is what a witch would do, and because both the temporal and religious authorities “achieved proof by confession rather than evidence, and confession was routinely gained by torture.”  Fear of being denounced by the authorities or even one’s neighbors was pervasive and socially destructive.[5]

In Tuchman’s rendering, fourteenth century Europe was not a happy time and place.  But does the situation sound familiar?  Substitute the Soviet Union and the United States for the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church, and you seem to have something of a mirror of the last half of the twentieth century when the Cold War raged around the world, anti-Communist witch hunts turned citizens against each other in the United States, and stoking fear and hatred brought demagogues to power.  That was Tuchman’s point.  Published in 1978, Tuchman’s book was intended as a warning about what happens when society is pervaded with demagoguery and dominated by fear.

In 1980, Umberto Eco published The Name of the Rose, a novel about politics and religion during the early fourteenth century.[6]  It is a mystery story wrapped in theological, political and philosophical debates, and it is effectively a fictionalization of themes discussed in Tuchman’s history.  Like Tuchman’s book, it is also a warning about what happens when society is dominated by ideological rigidity, theological zealotry, public corruption, demagoguery and fear.

The warnings of Tuchman and Eco are still relevant today.  Substitute President Putin and President Trump for the Emperor and the Pope, substitute Russia and the United States for the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church, and both books contain a warning about what might be happening to us today.  Eco might, however, also be trying in his novel to point us to a way of combating the pretensions of the Trumps, Putins and other would-be despots, and of helping to restore sanity and civility to what has been an increasingly insane and uncivil world.  And that way is through the universal propensity of people to laugh coupled with a pragmatic common sensibleness of which people seem capable no matter their cultural differences.  The purpose of this essay is to explain that interpretation of the book.

The Story: Irony and Agony in a Benedictine Monastery.

The Name of the Rose has been an international best-selling novel since its first publication in 1980 – over fifty million copies sold and counting.  It is widely considered an unusual novel to have become a best-seller.[7]  It is a hefty book, some five hundred pages long.  It is also an intellectually heavy book.  The story takes place in a fictional Benedictine monastery during the 1320’s and almost all of the characters are monks.  It is filled with abstruse theological discourse on issues that were of interest to fourteenth century Roman Catholic clergymen. There is a small amount of sex in the book, but very little, only just enough to highlight some of the theological arguments.  This does not seem to be the stuff of which best-selling novels are generally made.

The Name of the Rose is, nonetheless, a compelling book and I think that is because of the unstinting and unswerving reasonableness and good humor of the main character, William of Baskerville.  William is a Franciscan Friar who is a sleuth, scientist and philosopher rolled into one.  He is a pragmatist caught in the midst of extremists who push their ideas and actions to the point of absurdity, and beyond to disaster.  He is a rational man among zealots, and we identify with him and root for him as he lobs witticisms at the fanatics and tries to make sense of the mess around him, just as most of us hope to do in our own lives.

It is an extremely erudite and dense book.  It sets us down in an alien world full of ideas and things of which we have never heard, with people arguing passionately over obscure points equivalent to the question of how many angels can dance on the end of a pin.[8]  As a result, the novel is commonly seen as a sort of doomsday book and a postmodern portrayal of the futility of finding common ground with other people and engaging in meaningful communication with them. [9]  But, I disagree.  I think the book is actually a paean to pragmatism and good humor and, through William, it has an optimistic message, albeit wrapped in disorder, death and destruction.

The story is in the form of a long-lost manuscript purportedly written by a medieval monk named Adso which has been found, translated and published by an unnamed fictional editor.  Adso was ostensibly William of Baskerville’s sidekick and amanuensis during a trip they made to the Benedictine monastery for a meeting between representatives of the Pope and the Franciscan Order.  The purpose of the meeting was to discuss whether the Franciscans should be allowed to live in absolute poverty as they contended Jesus and his disciples had done.  The manuscript consists of Adso’s notes and reconstructions of what transpired and, especially, what William said and did.  In the manuscript, Adso admits that he often did not understand the purport of William’s philosophical ideas, and it is clear to us that he didn’t.[10]

But Adso is still able to communicate William’s words to us so that we can fathom what William was saying.  That we can understand William seems to exemplify one of Eco’s points in the book that although we see each other and the world through a glass darkly, we can still see clearly enough to make pragmatic sense of things if we try.  There is a faux preface to the book by the faux editor in which he clearly does not understand the import of the book he is publishing and completely misses any comparison of the fourteenth century with today, and this seems to make the same point because we readers can see the comparison.

The Name of the Rose is a complex and complicated.  It has several plot lines and many themes. It is abstruse and hard to penetrate, which I think is consistent with the idea that we see through a glass darkly.  I think, however, that one can identify three main plot lines and two main themes in the story.  The plot lines follow William’s investigation of a series of murders at the monastery, William’s theological debates with other monks at the monastery and his disquisitions with Adso, and William’s participation in the meeting between the Pope’s delegates and the Franciscan leadership.  The themes focus on the morality of laughter and the nature of the nomenclature we use to understand things and communicate with each other.

William is at the center of each of the plot lines.  He has come to the monastery to help mediate the meeting between the Franciscans and the Pope’s representatives.  But, no sooner does he get there than the Abbot of the monastery ropes him into investigating a death that had occurred just prior to William’s arrival, and which is suspected to be a murder.  Consistent with the idea that things are not always what they seem to be, the death is eventually found to be a suicide.

William’s investigation of that death seems, nonetheless, to trigger a series of murders that are not directly connected with either the suicide or with the subject of the forthcoming meeting, but which William is now called upon to investigate.  The murders seem to follow a pattern from the Book of Revelation in the Bible and are possibly intended to signal the second coming of Jesus Christ.  This pattern is eventually found to be a red herring intended by the murderer to lead William’s investigations astray, but it is this plot line that keeps the pot boiling in the book.

In the course of his investigations, William increasingly finds a fanatical blind Benedictine monk named Jorge in his way, and the second plot line consists of theological debates among various monks but especially between William and Jorge.  The Benedictines were historically known for their scholarship, and the book’s fictional Benedictine monastery is supposedly a major repository of ancient texts.  Many of the texts were written by Greeks and Romans who were not Christians, and these texts are jealously guarded by the monks lest they get into the hands of lay people who might misinterpret them in ostensibly heretical ways.

Jorge is an arch-Benedictine who espouses Church orthodoxy and upholds the authority of Authority.  And he does so vehemently.  To Jorge, the Church is constituted by its hierarchy, not its adherents, and the truth is in Church documents, not scientific discoveries.  He claims that the purpose of scholarship should be to preserve knowledge, not to discover or invent it. He derides the quest for new knowledge as sinful “pride” that is subversive of the established Church.  Jorge accepts the literal truth of Scripture and claims it says “everything that is needed to be known.”  To him, science is evil.  “Before we looked to heaven,” he complains, “now we look to earth.”[11]

Soon after William arrives at the monastery, he encounters Jorge in a workroom in which monks were copying and illuminating holy books, and they begin their debating.  When William enters, Jorge is berating one of the illustrators for drawing on the sacred manuscripts absurdly humorous caricatures of humans and other animals which make the other monks laugh.  Jorge condemns the illustrations as distortions that denigrate God’s creation and warp men’s minds.  And he condemns their laughter as inconsistent with the seriousness of a monk’s work.

William defends the drawings as a means of contrasting what is false with what is true and, thereby, highlighting the truth.  “God can be named only through the most distorted things,” William claims, and “He shows Himself more in that which is not than in that which is.”  In turn, laughter, William contends, can be an aid to understanding.  Jorge replies that in the Gospels “Our Lord did not have to employ such things to point out the straight and narrow path to us.  Nothing in his parables arouses laughter.”  And “Christ never laughed,” Jorge concludes.  But he could have, William counters, “nothing in his human nature forbade it.”[12]

And despite Jorge’s claim that Jesus’ parables don’t provoke outright laughter, many of them were certainly witty.  This includes sayings such as “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven” and “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”  The former saying disparages riches and indicates that it would be absurd to think a rich man can be good enough to get into heaven.  The latter saying turns on the fact that to a Jew such as Jesus and to the Christian followers of Jesus, everything is owed to God and there is, in effect, nothing owed to Caesar.  It would be absurd to think otherwise when dealing with a Supreme Being.  This was an irony lost on Jesus’ audience and many others since.  Both sayings are quite humorous and were historically used by Franciscans to support their position that Jesus favored Church poverty.

As their initial interchange illustrates, Jorge and William held antithetical views of scholarship and the Church.  Jorge stands for the upholding the past, William for the progressing in the present.  As an erstwhile scientist, William especially promotes the questioning of authority.  Doctrines are merely hypotheses, subject to being proved, disproved, and modified as circumstances change and different evidence emerges.  Institutions are also made to evolve as circumstances change. “Books are not made to be believed,” William explains, “but to be subject to inquiry” and that, he insists to an astonished Adso, includes even Scripture.  Knowledge can, in turn, come from many sources. The Koran, he contends, is “A book containing wisdom different from ours” but there are many things Christians can learn from Muslims.[13]

The third plot line concerns an actual conflict during the 1320’s between the Franciscan Order backed by the Emperor and the Dominican Order that administered the Inquisition for the Pope.  The story in the book is fictional but the dispute is historical.  Historically, the Franciscans were known for their relatively relaxed rules of behavior and liberal theological interpretations, and for ministering to the poor and to social outcasts.  The Dominicans were known for their theological purity and for harshly administering the Inquisition against alleged heretics. During the first part of the fourteenth century, the Franciscans and the Pope were engaged in a virulent and sometimes violent debate about whether Jesus and his disciples had lived in poverty and owned nothing, and whether monks and maybe the Church as a whole should do likewise.

The Benedictine monastery in the story is ostensibly neutral territory and is hosting a meeting between the Franciscan leadership and some representatives of the Pope on the question of whether Franciscans should be allowed to practice the poverty they attributed to Jesus.  The Pope has denied them that right, seemingly because he fears it would reflect badly on the wealth of the Church and the lavishness of his own lifestyle.  The Emperor is supporting the Franciscans merely in order to gall the Pope.  The Pope’s delegation is headed by a zealous and bloodthirsty Dominican Inquisitor named Bernard Gui, who was an actual historical person.  At the fictional meeting, William jousts with Bernard over questions of what constitutes heresy and what should be done with people who are accused of heresy.

Bernard essentially takes the position that it is better to burn a slew of innocent people at the stake than to let one guilty heretic get away.  He seems to want to execute anyone who is accused by any reputable authority of heresy, no matter what the accused has actually said or done.  He claims that the authority and integrity of the Church as an eternal institution are at stake.  To him, anything that calls the Church into question does the work of the Devil.  And Bernard implies that Franciscans who support the poverty movement might be in that number.  William responds with questions that he hopes will demonstrate the absurdity of Bernard’s position but does not directly attack Bernard for fear of getting his colleagues into trouble.  The meeting soon breaks down into shouting among the participants and nothing is resolved.

Later, speaking to Adso, William claims that people become heretics and outcasts because the Church does not address their problems of poverty, disease, and oppression.  The goal should be to reincorporate rebels back into the Church, rather than slaughtering them.  But, he continues, “The recovery of the outcasts demanded the reduction of the privileges of the powerful,” which is why the powers-that-be in the Church prefer to kill rebels as heretics.  When Adso remarks that it seems the Church “accuses all its adversaries of heresy,” William replies that the Church also “recognizes as orthodoxy any heresy it can bring under its control.” Cynicism, William claims, lays behind the faith proclaimed by the Church.  In the holy scheme of things, William contends, “The faith a movement proclaims doesn’t count; what counts is the hope it offers.”  And that is where the Church is failing, he concludes.[14]

It turns out in the end that Jorge is behind the murders. He has been attempting to keep anyone from reading a long-lost book on comedy and laughter that Aristotle had written.  Among medieval theologians and philosophers, Aristotle was a revered pre-Christian philosopher, widely known as The Philosopher.  Jorge was afraid that if Aristotle’s book became public knowledge, it would place a stamp of approval on laughter and humor, which he believes are tools of the Devil.  Jorge arranges things so that any monk who even briefly possesses the book dies almost immediately.  Tellingly, although Jorge thinks the book is evil, he has been too much of a scholar to simply destroy it.

William discovers the truth about the murders but it is too late to avoid further tragedy.  Jorge gains a Pyrrhic victory over William when he destroys the book and the whole monastery in a fire that kills most of the learned monks, destroys all of the other precious books, and also kills himself.  William and Adso escape the inferno.

The Morality of Mirth: Laughter is not a Laughing Matter.

“The Devil is the arrogance of the Spirit, faith without a smile, truth that is never seized by doubt.” William of Baskerville. The Name of the Rose.

The Name of the Rose is a dense book with many themes.  I think, however, that one can identify two main interrelated themes that run through the book.  They can be characterized as the morality of mirth – whether laughter is a moral or immoral act — and the metaphysical nuances of nomenclature – what we mean when we call something by a name.

The Name of the Rose is not a funny book. It tells a grim story set in a particularly vicious time and place in history. The story mainly consists of serious philosophical discussions that are periodically punctuated by gruesome murders.  The book is, nonetheless, dominated by laughter, laughter as a subject of theological dispute and laughter at the wit and witticisms of the author Eco and the main character William of Baskerville.  William is a proponent and exemplar of laughter whose name is itself a witty reference by Eco to Sherlock Holmes.

Laughter is a common response to disorder.  When things are not what they are supposed to be, it may be distressing but it can also be humorous.  Laughing can be a way of distancing yourself from the pain of an undesirable person or unwanted event by seeing the situation as ridiculous and, therefore, less threatening.  Self-awareness is a key to laughter.  In laughing at a situation, you can see yourself as both in but not of the situation.  That is, you must be able to rise above the situation and see yourself in the midst of others but also apart from them.

Aristotle, whose philosophy dominated the Middle Ages and is at the center of the philosophical discussions in The Name of the Rose, defined humans as animals that can laugh.  Until recently, we humans generally thought that we were the only ones who could laugh.  Aristotle and most people believed that other animals were merely automatons and were creatures of instinct and blind causality.  They were supposedly without self-awareness and, therefore, without laughter.  We now know differently, that other animals are aware of themselves as individuals, can make choices about their lives, and seemingly can laugh.  But laughter is still a universal human characteristic.  People everywhere laugh.

Laughter is a moral issue because it can be an expression either of smug certainty and pride or of doubt and humility.  In its former form, it is often seen as immoral.  In its latter form, it is often seen as a moral virtue.  Philosophers have differed through the ages on the relative virtues and viciousness of laughter, a debate that is played out by William and Jorge in Eco’s novel.

Philosophers and psychologists have categorized laughter in various ways but two theories seem to stand out as most commonly used, the Superiority Theory and the Incongruity Theory.[15]  The Superiority Theory was promoted by Plato, Descartes, Hobbes and others who denounced laughter as immoral.  In this view, laughter is a means of denigrating a person and asserting superiority over him.  Comedy is laughing at a fool and making him feel bad.

Plato rejected laughter as an emotional outburst in which the laugher loses rational control of himself and both the laugher and the target of the laughter are denigrated. Among Christians, Saints Jerome, Ambrose and John of Chrysostom rejected laughter as proudful, uncharitable and unholy.  Saint Benedict, who composed the rules by which most medieval monasteries operated, banned laughter among monks as inconsistent with the seriousness of their vocation.

The Incongruity Theory was promoted by Aristotle, Kant and Kierkegaard among others.  It emphasizes laughter that is about something, rather than aimed at someone.  In this theory, laughter is an expression of surprise and wonder at some unexpected or inconsistent turn of events.  In contradistinction to Plato’s Superiority Theory, Aristotle defined funny as “a mistake or unseemliness that is not painful or destructive.” In this theory, comedy is laughing at foolishness, to which we are all potentially prone, and laughter is a recognition of the absurd contradictions in ourselves, life and the universe.[16]  Summarizing this position, the philosopher John Morreall claims that “Comedy embodies an anti-heroic, pragmatic attitude toward life’s incongruities.”[17]  In this theory, laughter is benign, useful, and a source of humility, not pride.

What are we to make of the incongruity between these two theories?  Laugh, I suppose, but maybe also see them as complementary rather than contradictory.  Instead of focusing on whether the joke is on someone or is about something, we might focus instead on the power relations between the laugher and the target of his laughing.  In particular, we might distinguish between laughter that is intended to afflict the oppressed while comforting the oppressor, and laughter that is intended to comfort the oppressed while afflicting the oppressor.  That is, we can distinguish between the laughter of the bully who seeks to put down someone weaker than himself from the laughter of the downtrodden who seek to take down the bully. It is a difference between the laughter of repression versus the laughter of rebellion.

Based on this distinction, laughter can lay at the root of morality because it can help enforce the Golden Rule.  Some version of what we call the Golden Rule – the admonition to love thy neighbor as thyself and do unto others as you would have them do unto you – is part of virtually every culture in world history.  Rejecting the laughter of bullies while encouraging laughter at them can help promote the Golden Rule ideal of treating others fairly and as family.  As the philosopher Jacqueline Bissel puts it: “Laughter can interrupt the banality of evil.”[18]  William represents this position in The Name of the Rose.

It is, of course, not merely dour philosophers who disparage and discourage laughter.  History is full of powerful people who fear the subversive nature of laughter and try to discourage it.  There are also people who would suppress the self-awareness in others that makes laughter possible.  Ideologues, fanatics and megalomaniacs often seek to overwhelm the selves of their followers and absorb them into whatever causes they are promoting.  Religious cults and revolutionary political parties are notorious examples.  They try to root out independent thinking and feeling in their adherents, and generally oppose laughter as inconsistent with the deadly seriousness of their causes.  Many would disparage the Golden Rule in the name of zero-sum competition in what they see as a dog-eat-dog world or in the name of battling heretics and sinners in what they see as a world full of evil.  Jorge and Bernard Gui represent this position in the book.

The Absurdity Test and Speaking Humor to Power: You laughing at me?

“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 passion for truth.” William of Baskerville. The Name of the Rose.

In The Name of the Rose, the case for laughter is espoused and exemplified by William of Baskerville who contrasts with the ideologues, fanatics and megalomaniacs he mixes with at the monastery.  In the course of his investigations of the murders, his debates with Jorge, and his involvement in the meetings between the Franciscans and the emperor’s representatives, he practices what might be called an absurdity test.

An absurdity test is a way of evaluating your own ideas and actions and those of others in order to decide whether they are laughable.  It requires you to conduct thought experiments about the potential results of a belief or action in the event it was extended to its practical and logical limits.  If the long-term results of extending it are practically or logically absurd, that is, if they are laughable, then the results are unacceptable, and you must modify or limit your belief or action.  It is a pragmatic test of the workability of an idea or action, and it tends you toward Aristotle’s Golden Mean which is a middle way of thinking and acting.

A premise of the absurdity test is that people, and especially powerful people, do not like to be laughed at.  The test is an appeal to their humility – maybe I could be wrong — but also to their vanity – I don’t want to look like a fool.  The hope is that people, and especially those in positions of power, will apply the absurdity test to themselves.  William applies this test to himself in his investigation of the murders when he realizes he has fallen for the red herring left by the murderer and laughs at himself for being fooled.

But if powerful people don’t apply the test to themselves, the test should be applied to them by others.  If the Emperor has no clothes, or the Pope has too many, people have a moral obligation to laugh at them, or at least snicker.  That is what William does in the story as he tries to demonstrate to people around him, and especially to the theological and political powers-that-be, the absurdity of their fixed and narrow-minded ideas.

The Metaphysical Nuances of Nomenclature: What’s in a name?

The dispute between Jorge and William about laughter relates to the medieval debate about universals, which was one of the biggest issues in philosophy during the fourteenth century.  A universal is that which particular things have in common.  It is a general idea that groups or connects particular things.  White things, for example, have whiteness in common.  Humans have humanness in common.  Nearby things have closeness in common.  The nature of universals is a question that occupies William in his debates with Jorge and Bernard.

The philosophical question was about the metaphysical status of general ideas.  The question was whether universals exist as things in their own right or are merely names that are arbitrarily given to groups of things.  Does the general idea of things precede the particular things that are covered by that general idea, or do the particular things precede the general idea that they have in common?  On its face, this question seems to have the unsolvable quality of “What came first, the chicken or the egg?”   But it is, in fact, solvable, albeit in different ways that have significant theological, social and moral ramifications, including on the meaning and morality of laughter.

The debate over the metaphysical status of general ideas goes back to ancient times and continues in the present day. There were three main ways in which universals were considered during the fourteenth century.  These ways were what are called ontological realism, nominalism, and conceptualism.[19]

To try to simplify a very complicated debate, ontological realism holds that universals are things in themselves that precede the particular instances of those things.  The idea of whiteness, for example, ostensibly came first, white things came second.  And the idea of man came before any actual men.  Among the ancients, Plato claimed that “There is a heavenly realm of greater reality consisting in forms, ideals, or ideas.” He promoted an extreme version of ontological realism in which universals were ostensibly abstract objects that existed in a world of their own.

Nominalism holds that universals are merely arbitrary names that we give to groups of things.  White things came first, the word whiteness is an arbitrary term that we apply to them.  Heraclitus, who famously claimed that “You cannot step in the same river twice,” held an extreme form of nominalism that bordered on nihilism.

Conceptualism holds that universals are names that we give to groups of things, but the names are not arbitrary and, in fact, conform to the reality of those things.  White things came first, but the term whiteness is not arbitrary and conforms with concrete reality of whiteness.  Aristotle, who proclaimed that “Virtue is found in the Golden Mean,” took a characteristically middle position between nominalism and realism.  Aristotle believed in the reality of universals but insisted that they be supported by concrete evidence.

Aristotle’s was a pragmatic and scientific approach to universals.  In this approach, you can subject general ideas to an absurdity test and laugh if the results are absurd. General ideas that work are acceptable.  Those that don’t work aren’t.  During the early Middle Ages, Aristotle was generally thought in Europe to be an ontological realist, but by the fourteenth century, with an infusion of new knowledge of him from the Arabs, he was frequently being cited as a conceptualist.[20]

Interpreters of The Name of the Rose have differed in whether they think Eco is opting in the book in favor of nominalism or conceptualism through the character of William of Baskerville.  And they have differed in where they think the name of the book comes from and what it means.  Eco was characteristically cryptic and ambiguous about the origins of the book’s name.  Among critics, the two leading candidates seem to be Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose” and Juliette’s “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”[21]  I don’t think that either of these sayings captures the meaning of the book.

Stein said that her phrase was a reference to the language of the fourteenth century poet Chaucer and to his times when, she claimed, if you had a word for a thing or said the word for a thing, you concluded that the thing must really exist.  Stein was, in effect, saying that her phrase was an exercise in ontological realism, the orthodox metaphysics of the fourteenth century.  As such, I don’t think her phrase reflects the meaning of the book because I think it is clear that Eco is not promoting and William is not espousing ontological realism.

Shakespeare’s Juliette is a thirteen-year-old girl who is in the first stages of infatuation with Romeo, a young man from the wrong family background.  She is not a philosopher and she is almost certainly wrong in what she proposes.  Her statement about the smell of roses is preceded by a plea for Romeo to “Deny thy father and refuse thy name.” And he responds “Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”  Taken together, their statements about the name of Romeo and the smell of roses reflect an extreme nominalism that is wrong-headed on at least three counts.

First, Juliette seems to think that if Romeo changed his name, he would somehow be purged of his family background.  And he thinks likewise.  That is clearly not the case.  By any name, he would still be a person with the wrong family background.  Second, if Romeo were to reject his family background by changing his name, he would effectively be changing himself.  He would be saying to himself as well as others that he does not want to be the person he was when he was named Romeo, and he would no longer smell as he had when Juliette fell for him.  Third, if Romeo rejected his name and family background, he would be rejecting the form of himself that she fell in love with, which is the rose that she thinks is so sweet. Names make a difference both as to what a thing is and to how we respond to it.  If Romeo’s name had been Satan, wouldn’t it have made a difference in him if he had been forced to grow up with the name of Satan and mightn’t she have reacted differently to him?  Just think of the song “A boy named Sue.”

I think a better candidate for the meaning of the book’s name is a poem by Robert Frost called “The Rose Family.”  It goes: “The rose is a rose, and always was a rose.  But the theory goes that the apple’s a rose, and the pear, and so’s the plum.  The dear only knows what will next prove a rose.  You, of course, are a rose – But were always a rose.”  The factual point of the poem is that fruit such as apples are in the botanical family of rose plants.  The ontological point seems to be that the name “rose” is a tool with which we make sense of the world.  But it does not have a fixed meaning.  Its meaning changes as we discover new things that botanically fall within the category.  Frost’s is a conceptualist view that fits with a pragmatic philosophy, and that fosters humility – we can never know everything or adhere to fixed categories – and a sense of humor – what we say today may seem absurd tomorrow.  This is, I think, the view that is being promoted in the book by Eco and espoused by William.

In addition to evidence provided by the book’s name, the arc of the book’s narrative seems to tend toward conceptualism.  Adso begins his narrative with the opening words of the Gospel of St. John: “In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  This statement can be characterized as the ontological realist’s credo.  Words come first, concrete reality comes after.

But Adso ends his narrative with a Latin phrase that translates as “The ancient rose remains by its name, naked names are all that we have.”  This is a conceptualist conclusion as well as another potential source of the book’s title.  The phrase seems to mean that words are a function of concrete reality, but when the reality is gone, we still have the words and we can try to gain meaning from them.  Adso has said in the lines just before this closing phrase that “I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I no longer know what it is about.”  The pragmatic and conceptualist point is that he has left the manuscript for posterity and that is us, and we can understand it and make use of it as best we can.[22]

Nominally nominalist; conceptually conceptualist; pragmatically pragmatist.

“The only truths that are useful are instruments to be thrown away.”                                       William of Baskerville. The Name of the Rose.

Ontological realism was the metaphysical and theological orthodoxy in the fourteenth century.  As a general rule, ontological realism tends to support any orthodoxy at any time because it holds to a fixed and immutable set of general categories.  The world is the way it is because it was made that way.  Whatever is, is right.  This is the position of Jorge in the novel.  In this view, if anyone questions any of the conventional categories or orthodox ideas, that person is guilty of both heresy – undermining the Truth – and treason – undermining established institutions.  Laughter and even irony are forbidden because they are inherently subversive.  And there is no absurdity test because extremism in defense of orthodoxy is no vice.  A deadly seriousness is the ideal attitude.  This is the position of the Inquisitor Bernard Gui.

William of Baskerville disagrees with the ontological realists.  And in his debates with the other monks and his discussions with Adso, William espouses the views of many of the most progressive thinkers of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries in Europe who opposed ontological realism, in particular the scientist Roger Bacon, the metaphysician William of Ockham, and the political philosopher Marsilius of Padua.  William is a fictional character but he expresses the views of actual people who figured prominently in the intellectual life of that time, and who figured especially in opposition to the scientific, political, theological, and philosophical orthodoxies of the day.  The book is a mixture of the factual and the fictional but it is the facts that constitute the main point behind the fiction.

William says that he is particularly indebted to Bacon, Ockham, and Marsilius.  Each of them was a Franciscan, as ostensibly is William.  Franciscans and people who used the Franciscan name as cover were often involved in many unorthodox movements during this time, including the Franciscans’ poverty movement.  Bacon, Ockham, and Marsilius, in turn, acknowledged deep intellectual debts to ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, especially Aristotle, as well as to contemporary Arab Muslim scholars from whom they got much of their knowledge about Aristotle.  This cultural interchange and indebtedness is highlighted by William in the novel and seems intended by Eco to promote the idea that there is a pragmatic commonality among the best thinkers from different cultures.

Bacon, Ockham, and Marsilius all operated within the assumptions of the Catholic Middle Ages, which included adherence to the one and only Roman Catholic Church and its Scriptures. Nonetheless, they promoted ideas that point towards the Renaissance and the Reformation, which are widely considered by historians to mark the beginning of modern history. The fact that these men could intellectually look backwards to ancient cultures, look sideways to contemporary Arabic cultures, and point forwards to modern culture so that we can understand, argue and agree with them today, seems again to support the idea that a common pragmatic reasonableness can emerge from many different cultural frameworks. This is an idea that underlies what I think is the optimism of the book despite its tragic events.

Roger Bacon, who William considers his intellectual forefather, was a late thirteenth century Franciscan whose work as an alchemist and scientist emphasized proving hypotheses through empirical evidence.[23]  Conventional medieval science was based on ontological realism and the reality of universal general ideas. Given this foundation, medieval scientists often arrived at conclusions that were based on deductions from mere assumptions, assumptions drawn from the realists’ storehouse of universals.  Bacon rejected this methodology as absurd. He insisted that propositions be proven through evidence.  Assumptions were mere hypotheses, not reality. And reality was physical evidence, not mere ideas.

Based on new translations from Arabic of Aristotle’s works on science, Bacon rejected ontological realism and leaned toward nominalism.  “A universal,” Bacon claimed, “is nothing but the agreement of many individuals,” that is, general ideas are derived from individual experiences and must be supported by a mass of evidence to prove them.  General ideas don’t precede individual experiences and don’t exist in a world of their own.  Bacon’s scientific and ontological ideas flew in the face of Church orthodoxy.  In addition, he was sympathetic with the poverty movement within the Franciscan Order. As a consequence, Bacon was frequently chastised by the Church hierarchy and even imprisoned for his views.[24]

William also considers William of Ockham to be a mentor and a friend.[25] Ockham was a Franciscan of the early fourteenth century whose ontological theories went even further than Bacon’s in rejecting universals and moving toward nominalism.  In the debates of his time, Ockham frequently bested his opponents through performing the sort of thought experiments that I have called absurdity tests, and thereby hoisting them on their own petards.

In objecting to ontological realism, Ockham argued, for example, that the idea of an all-powerful God in which all Catholics believed was inconsistent with the orthodox idea of universals.  Ontological realism, he said, holds that the general idea of a thing has a real existence of its own, that the general idea precedes any individual examples of the thing, and that the general idea exists irrespective of any individual examples of the thing.  So, he said, according this theory, if we were to posit the general idea of “man” as a universal, an all-powerful God could abolish all individual and actual men but the universal idea of “man” would still exist as a real thing. This, he said, was absurd.  Either God cannot do this because He is not really all-powerful, or the universal idea of “man” does not exist as a real thing.  Since the former conclusion is blasphemous, the latter must be the case.  In the alternative, Ockham added, God could abolish the universal idea of “man” but leave intact all the individual men without any general idea of what is a man, which is also absurd.  The only reasonable conclusion, Ockham claimed, is that general ideas are mental concepts constructed out of actual experiences, which is nominalism.

Ockham was also unorthodox on other theological and moral issues that are reflected in William’s positions in the book.  Ockham argued, for example, that intent determined the morality of an action, not the action itself.  This position put him at odds with orthodox Catholic doctrine which held that various sacramental acts, such as baptism, confession, and others, were keys to morality.  The intent to do these things was not sufficient if they weren’t actually done.  Ockham’s view that intent was sufficient was considered heretical.

Even more significantly, Ockham rejected the Pope’s claim to hegemony over the Christian world.  Ockham claimed that Church and State should be separate but equal domains, and that no one man, not even God’s vicar the Pope, should rule over all things. The Pope is, after all, only a man and there should be checks and balances on the power of men.  Ockham was, in addition, at odds with the Pope in supporting the poverty movement within the Franciscan Order.  Given the radicalism of his views, Ockham was frequently chastised by the Pope and was eventually excommunicated and persecuted as a heretic.[26]

Finally, William is portrayed as a colleague of Marsilius of Padua. Marsilius was a Franciscan who took even further Ockham’s ideas that Church and State should be separate and that no one man should have absolute power.  He claimed that the Church consisted of the body of believers and was not constituted by the Pope and the Church hierarchy.  The Church was not a universal that existed on its own and that somehow preceded its members but was a concept created in the minds of its members and constituted by their persons.

Subjecting orthodox Church doctrine to what I have termed an absurdity test, Marsilius claimed that if the Church was constituted by its hierarchy, then theoretically it could exist without members, which is absurd.  The Church is an idea and institution that is conceptualized and realized by its members.  Marsilius similarly insisted that the State consisted of its citizens and was not constituted by the Emperor and the aristocracy. Even more radically, he believed that the government of both the Church and the State should consist of councils of ordinary people, which was a fundamentally democratic idea.  Like Ockham, Marsilius was excommunicated and persecuted as a heretic.[27]

In The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco brings the ideas of Bacon, Ockham and Marsilius together through the character of William of Baskerville.  William repeatedly references them or paraphrases their arguments in his statements.  Mirroring Ockham, William rejects universals because they “would imply that God is their prisoner,” which is absurd.  He insists that everything must be open to questioning and reinterpreting, even the Holy Scriptures.  No one, not even the Pope, had the absolute truth or the last word on Scripture.  And William subjects Scripture to what I have termed an absurdity test and concludes that “the freedom of God is our condemnation, or at least the condemnation of our pride.”  Scripture is couched in human words.  If God is restricted to our words and our interpretation of those words, then even if they were inspired by God, we are saying that we can define and restrict God and that we are more powerful than God.  That is either blasphemous or foolishness.[28]

At the same time, William rejected as absurd the extreme positions of people, including some of his fellow Franciscans, who took nominalism to the point of anarchism and even nihilism, which some in the book do.  Extreme nominalism in which everything has its own name, and there are no general ideas, is unworkable because it “creates an infinity of new entities,” which is absurd.  Like Ockham, his solution to the problem of universals is a conceptualism in which individual things are mentally grouped into general ideas.  Like Bacon, he proposes to start his analysis of any problem with hypotheses — “Imagine many general laws” — and then follow the facts to his conclusions.  And like Marsilius, William concludes “That for the management of human affairs it is not the Church that should legislate but the assembly of the people.” [29]

Reformers and Reactionaries: The Empire invariably strikes back, but don’t panic.

“If you find it hard to laugh at yourself, I would be happy to do it for you.”             Groucho Marx.

It seems that it is always the best of times and worst of times, only sometimes the best are better and the worst are worse.  I am writing this essay during July, 2018.  Right now, it seems to be a worst of times in many places in the world.  But, who knows?  The events in The Name of the Rose ostensibly took place during the 1320’s and things looked as though they couldn’t get much worse.  But they did.  The Black Plague hit in the 1340’s and killed off a third of Europe’s people.  It seemed then as though things would never get better and the world would go out with a whimper. But it didn’t. The Renaissance happened instead.  And so on and on, back and forth between reformers and reactionaries, and between better and worse times to the present day.

Our hero William was defeated in the book.  His mentors Bacon, Ockham, and Marsilius were defeated in their time.  Bernard Gui, the Inquisitor, was triumphant both in fact and in the fiction.  But who today remembers, let alone celebrates, Bernard Gui?  Meanwhile, Bacon, Ockham and Marsilius are widely known and highly celebrated.  And that, I think, is the ultimate point of the novel.  The pragmatic and common sensible ideas that those thinkers gleaned from the ancients and developed further within their own medieval culture have been passed down to modern times and developed further within ours.  Those ideas bucked the conventional wisdom and faced opposition from emperors and fanatics in ancient times, then again in medieval times, and still again in our modern times.  But the ideas have survived.  And although these same pragmatic ideas and common sensible attitudes are under assault today by a host of would-be emperors with the support of modern day fanatics, we cannot let the bastards get us down.

When we find ourselves on a downward slope, we should remember that every slope isn’t slippery, and that laughter can check a free fall. History repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce,” Karl Marx intoned in 1852 when comparing the newly crowned French Emperor Napoleon III with his celebrated ancestor the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Applying what I have called an absurdity test to Napoleon III, Marx proceeded to heap serious ridicule on the buffoonish erstwhile emperor, and that is largely how he is remembered today.  Napoleon III was pathetic and might have been an object of pity if he had not been doing so much harm that he became an object of sarcasm and scorn instead.[30]  It is the same with Donald Trump today.  How awful it must be to be him.  Nonetheless, when dealing with the would-be emperor Trump, we should proceed as Marx did with Napoleon III, and maybe Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel can show us the way to help bring him down.

B.W. 7/2018


[1] Barbara Tuchman. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. New York: Ballantine Books, 1978.

[2] Ibid. p.XIII.

[3] Ibid. p.306.

[4] Ibid. p.26-30.

[5] Ibid. p.43.

[6] Umberto Eco. The Name of the Rose. New York: Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich, 1980.  

[7]  Ted Gioia. “The Nature of the Rose.”  New Angles on an Old Genre.

[8] Kenneth Atchity. “’The Times’ 1983 review of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: An intriguing detective story.” The Los Angeles Times, 2/20/2016.

[9] “The Name of the Rose.”

[10] Eco. op. cit. p.11.

[11] Eco. op. cit. pp.400, 472.

[12] Eco. op. cit. pp.77-81, 95..

[13] Eco. op. cit. pp.116, 315 -316.

[14] Eco. op. cit. 202-204.

[15] John Morreall. “Philosophy of Humor.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 9/28/2016.

[16] Jessica Wahrman.  Quoting Santayana in “’We Are All Mad Here’: Santayana and the Significance of Humor.” Contemporary Pragmatism, Vol.2, No.2. 12/2005.

[17] John Morreall. “Philosophy of Humor.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 9/28/2016.

[18] Susannah Laramee Kidd.  Quoting Jacqueline Bissel in “Review of The Laughter of the Oppressed by Jacqueline Bissell.” April, 2009.

[19] Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra. “Nominalism in Metaphysics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015.

[20] Jonathan Barnes. Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.pp.71-74.

[21] “The Name of the Rose.”

[22] Eco. op. cit. pp.11, 502.

[23] Eco. op. cit. p.17.

[24] Jeremiah Hackett. “Roger Bacon.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Spring, 2015.

[25] Eco. op. cit. p.18.

[26] Rondo Keele. Ockham Explained: From Razor to Rebellion. Chicago: Open Court Pub. Co., 2010.

[27] Bertrand Russell. A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1943.

[28] Eco. op. cit. pp.207, 493.

[29] Eco. op. cit. pp.206-208, 262-263, 304.

[30] Karl Marx. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International Publishers, 1963. p.15.


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