Arms and Letters

Alberto Manguel

In the year 267 AD, a Germanic tribe, the Heruli, who had occupied a large part of the Balkan region, entered Greece and captured Athens, in spite of the fortifications that had recently been built to protect the city. Before they were driven out by the scholarly general Dexippus, the Heruli gleefully set out to sack the famous city, destroying statues and monuments, and collecting scrolls from the libraries in order to burn them in a colossal bonfire. One of the Heruli chieftains ordered them to stop, telling the greedy soldiers, as Edward Gibbon reports in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that “as long as the Greek were addicted to the study of books, they would never apply themselves to the exercise of arms.”

Taken out of context—third century Europe or Gibbon’s Age of Enlightenment—and seen now, from our anguished twenty-first century, the idea of preventing political violence through reading must seem at best a naive and wishful goal. From the early Middle Ages until at least the bombing of Hiroshima, the opposition between arms and letters was an unresolved question. In the second part of Don Quixote, the Duke tells Sancho that, as governor of the Island of Barataria, he must dress the part: “half as a man of letters and half as a military captain, because in this island which I bestow upon you arms are as necessary as letters and letters as arms.” In saying this, the Duke not only refutes the classical dichotomy but also defines the obligatory concerns of every governor: the duty to act responsibly and the necessity to read books, understanding the former to mean action and the latter reflection. Our actions should be enlightened by our literature and our literature must bear witness to our actions. Therefore to act, in times of peace as in times of conflict, is in some sense an extension of our reading, since our books may guide us by means of the experience and knowledge of others, allowing readers the intuition of a future however uncertain, and the lesson of an immutable past.

Our societies have always been violent: war is the common state, peace the exception. Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue with head of gold, chest of silver, thighs of bronze, and feet of iron and clay was interpreted by Daniel as the succession of transient empires, from Babylon to that of God. Daniel’s interpretation has been extended throughout the generations and has provided justification for imperial expansions up to today. Colonialism and post-colonialism are two sides of the same coin. Rome’s Carthago delenda est is echoed in the cries of ISIS and the Ku Klux Klan.

This atmosphere of violence that permeates our societies is indicative of a profound, ancestral dissatisfaction on all sides. For those in power, it manifests itself in an exacerbation of prejudice drenched in fear: fear of being stripped of unmerited privileges, fear of being punished for having assumed those privileges, fear of being relegated to the condition of a dispossessed minority with no privileges at all. For the vast abused so-called minorities (which are in fact the majority) the violence comes from having reached the breaking point, because there is only so much suffering anyone can endure. What Derek Walcott, in The Muse of History, said about the Americas is true of the whole planet: “But who in the New World does not have a horror of the past, whether his ancestor was torturer or victim? Who, in the depth of conscience, is not silently screaming for pardon or revenge?” The movements of protest that have surged in recent years come partly from that abused majority, and partly from certain privileged intellectuals who try to reason out the wrongs and find drastic strategies for counteracting them. And against the vast, incontrovertible evidence of victimhood and injustice, it is difficult to plead for dialogue. It seems almost impossible to make those in the seats of power recognize the need for change. It seems just as impossible to ask the dispossessed to assume the role of merciful and reasonable judges willing to seek reconciliation. The victims’ cry today is “The boot is on the other foot now!” However justifiable the thirst for revenge, it needs to be understood that no one, not even the most undoubted martyr, can stand on just one foot. Society needs its two feet, as well as its head and the rest of its body. And until we learn to imagine outside metonymies, assuming that a foot or a fist might serve to represent our side, until we manage to think of society as a whole, a gestalt that is greater than the sum of its parts, we will not escape this vicious (in the truest sense) circle of violence done and violence reciprocated. “Utopia is not an optical illusion, but a logical illusion. It’s like trying to ‘square the circle,’” Tom Stoppard said in an interview a few years ago. “You cannot actually, even in your mind, construct an ideal society, in which everybody’s take on what is equality, what is liberty, what is justice, what is mercy, is the same—where you can take an absolute position on any of these ideas, and hope for them to stick together like Rubik’s cube. They just won’t do it.”

And yet, try we must. Not to hope for an unrealizable utopia but to consider our present societies in terms of a more inclusive, less colonialist mentality, which in the case of Europe means both an integration with the rest of the world, and the recognition of that world existing now within Europe’s borders, with its constantly changing population: from Germanic tribes to Goths, from Romans to humanists, from independent republics to multifaceted, multiracial, multi-religious societies that need yet to find their twenty-first-century identity. Wherever we come from, voluntary exiles or freedom-seeking refugees, we all share an ancient grandmother: the more than three-million-year-old Lucy whose name in Ethiopia is “Dinkinesh,” meaning “You are marvellous.” The dreadful COVID epidemic that we are all suffering has reminded us of this common ancestry, because no one is spared from the threat. True, inequalities exacerbate the risk for some and lessen it for others, but the risk does not go away, whoever and wherever you are. The epidemic has also shown us that nationalities are imaginary constructs, that whether in Portugal or Borneo, Bulgaria or Chile, the menace from the virus is the same because the air we all breathe is the same. Poets could not have wished for a better metaphor of our common humanity.

Perhaps there is a place in which “everybody’s take on what is equality, what is liberty, what is justice, what is mercy” can be, if not realized, at least discussed at length. The university could become an instrument towards a dialogue aimed at social sanity. Not to restore sanity to society—which never, in our multiple histories, has existed for very long—but to encourage us to imagine the possibility of sanity, which we have tried to imagine so many times throughout the centuries. The perceived confrontation between science and the arts, as the Duke pointed out to Sancho, is a false one. A few years ago, Andri Snær Magnason, one of Iceland’s best known writers, was asked by a leading climate scientist why he wasn’t writing about the greatest crisis humankind has faced: global warming. Magnason demurred. He wasn’t a specialist, he said, it wasn’t his field. But the scientist persisted: “If you cannot understand our scientific findings and present them in an emotional, psychological, poetic or mythological context,” he told him, “then no one will really understand the issue, and the world will end.”

This belief, that science and the arts (arms and letters in the Duke’s speech) are deeply intertwined, has been expressed many times throughout our histories. A few outstanding examples are Aristotle’s understanding of science through philosophy, Maimonides’s efforts to elicit a dialogue between Athens and Jerusalem, St. Jerome’s strategies to allow the literatures of Greece and Rome to interact with Christianity, Caliph al-Ma’mun’s magnificent project of translating the works of Aristotle into Arabic… There are many moments in our histories of which we can feel proud. We must learn that there is no “peripheral knowledge.” Like in the old definition of God, knowledge is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere. From the medieval gathering of geometry, music, astronomy, arithmetic, grammar, logic and rhetoric under one roof, to present-day courses such as Poetry for Physicists or Astrophysics for Artists, the university has attempted a reconciliation between disciplines set apart by the noxious split between praxis and logos, the act and the word, the flesh and the spirit. Science and the arts (for want of better words) fulfill their functions to help us survive through the imagination, that unique instrument that allows us humans the experience before the experience. Imagination offers us the possibility of becoming wiser, of doing things better and more justly, of finding solutions to ever-recurrent problems. I insist on the word possibility: imagination offers nothing more than that, it does not guarantee results. Neither science nor the arts can force action upon us. We must reflect and balance and decide. That is the meaning of what the old theologians called free will. Imagination offers us the choice; we are the ones who have to make it.

That is why careful reflection on the education strategies of the university are essential. If these strategies are dogmatic, if they are directive, if they don’t offer diversified instruction, if they don’t seek to educate but merely to train, if they attempt to domesticate the imagination instead of allowing it to run freely into unexplored realms, then the university becomes useless as an instrument of survival. In this sense, our archives, museums and libraries can be of assistance as places of active memory and evidence. We can learn from what we have collected and guarded and preserved, studying the material itself but also its context, the underlying meaning and prejudices of its cataloguing codes, the methods employed for finding and choosing and carrying material away, as gifts, as exemplars or as booty. This task is, in the words of the director of the Peabody Museum, Jane Pickering, “a challenge to long-held assumptions, as well as a deep commitment to broad and diverse perspectives on cultural heritage and on what it means to research and interpret museum and archival collections.” Indeed. Every memory carries meaning beyond its apparent qualities.

Education, knowledge, thinking, have therapeutic effects, since exercise for the brain (though it is not a muscle) is on a par with exercise for the muscles of our body. Studies of diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s have shown that an active, imaginative brain assists in the healing. Denis Diderot recommended bibliotherapy to cure various ailments. Carl Gustav Jung argued that the unconscious throws up from its depths clues and signposts we might follow to heal ourselves. In the processes of thought and in the labyrinths of dreams there are salutary indications of the paths to follow for a holistic betterment. Mens sana in corpore sano acquires a new, richer significance in today’s social context. There is no reason to separate the science of medicine from the art of poetry. The body is an ancient metaphor for society and for the world: the body politic is not a casual metaphor, nor is the depiction of the world in medieval maps as the human body of Christ a trivial image. The bodily microcosm of the cabbalists that mirrors the macrocosm of the universe is not an idle association of big and small. We are the world we inhabit.

Our models of society have always been flawed, some of course more flawed than others. But our only hope to overcome our persistent blindness and infectious folly, our poisoning of the planet and the abuse of our fellow human beings, lies in this: if we can learn to imagine better, generously and creatively, then perhaps we can imagine a society less unhappy and less unjust.

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at


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