Library as Wishful Thinking

Alberto Manguel

Libraries are not only essential in educating the soul, but in forming the identity of a society

One afternoon in April or May 56 BCE, Cicero wrote to his friend Atticus from his country house in Antium yet another letter filled with details of his daily life, and also with a few requests. “I shall be delighted if you can pay me a visit,” he wrote. “You will be surprised at Tyrannio’s excellent arrangement of my library. What is left of it is much better than I expected: still, I should be glad if you would send me two of your library slaves for Tyrannio to employ to glue pages together and be of general assistance, and I would tell them to get some bits of parchment to make title-pieces, which I think you Greeks call sillybi.” Tyrannio, as the serviceable note in Loeb’s edition of the Letters tells us, was a grammarian and teacher brought to Rome as a prisoner and served at one time as a tutor to the young Cicero. Cicero’s library would be properly ordered and labelled.

But “what is left of it” requires an explanation. Cicero had returned to Rome a year earlier, after the newly-elected tribune Clodius passed a law denying Cicero “fire and water” (in other words, public shelter) within four hundred miles of Rome. In despair, Cicero let his hair grow long and straggly, and dressed himself in a dark-coloured mourning toga; Clodius’s gangs hurled abuse at him when he was out in the streets, as well as stones and excrement—it is possible that they also ransacked his library. The Senate and the consuls, fearing the violence of Clodius’s hoodlums, said nothing, and Caesar, who was still encamped near Rome, declared, with more than a touch of schadenfreude, that under the circumstances, he could do nothing to prevent the harassment.

Cicero, who had studied the Greek stoics both in Rome and in Athens, turned to “what was left” of his books for consolation. He wrote to Atticus: “Since Tyrannio has arranged my books for me, my house seems to have had a soul added to it.” And to his friend Varrus he advised, with words that are now printed on T-shirts and coffee mugs: “If you have a library and a garden, you have everything you need.” This Stoic advice was certainly intended for himself.

In Cicero’s Rome, most private libraries were not built for the purpose of housing books. Rather, a bibliotheca would normally be an ordinary room set aside in a wing of the main building, with shelves stacked with papyrus rolls and wax tablets; often next to the garden or courtyard; simple or luxurious, depending on the wealth of the householder. Cicero’s library, though more modest than that of his friend Varrus, for instance, was nevertheless well stocked. In these books, lovingly collected over the years, Cicero believed that he would find not only consolation and a cautionary warning about the limits of one’s own knowledge, but also positive mirrors of his own ethical virtues. In October of that same year, he wrote to his brother Quintius who was then stationed in Gaul: “Don’t be idle; and don’t think the proverbial Know yourself was only meant to discourage vanity: it means also that we should be aware of our own qualities.”

For Cicero, his library was not only the soul of his house but also, in a deeper sense, of his own self. His persona as a thaumaturgic rhetorician, so keenly tuned to foster his political career, was nurtured by his readings and by his exploration of Greek philosophy, both in his early days in Rome and Athens, and now in his later years, enjoying his own library and those of his friends. Though in practical terms, Cicero knew perfectly well that his beloved volumes would not be an effective tool of survival against the murderous plotting of his political enemies, they seem to have served him as a promise, or a hope for something better, if not in his remaining years then possibly after death. In his essay on friendship Cicero wrote: “For I do not agree with those who have recently begun to argue that soul and body perish at the same time, and that all things are destroyed by death. I give greater weight to the old-time view, whether it be that of our forefathers, who paid such reverential rites to the dead, which they surely would not have done if they had believed those rites were a matter of indifference to the dead; or, whether it be the view of those who lived in this land and by their principles and precepts brought culture to Great Greece, which now, I admit, is wholly destroyed, but was then flourishing.” Cicero imagined that his library, filled with those ancient Greek works, would grant him a sort of intellectual immortality.

Wishing your library to be a place of learning, a place where you acquire the wisdom of your elders through the books they left behind, is part of the belief of the Stoics, whose teaching Cicero as a reader admired, though perhaps he did not quite follow their precepts in his political life, at least no more than the Stoic Seneca had done yoking himself to Nero’s service and at the same time recommending the path to an ethical life. Like Cicero, however, Seneca believed that you could choose your ancestors; they need not be strictly those of your blood lineage—parents, grandparents and great-grandparents—but also the authors on your library shelves: Aristotle, Plato and the rest of the Greek savants. The Stoic library of learning was largely a wishful library.

Some sixteen centuries later, thanks to the whims of the Counter-Reformation, the conversation with our Greek ancestors so dear to Cicero was divided into two antagonistic verbal factions, and the libraries of Catholic countries divested themselves of most of the books written in the venerable tongue of Plato that Rome now associated with the spawn of Luther. In Spain, Portugal, Italy, and also in France, from the late seventeenth century onwards, the libraries of the Enlightenment consisted mainly of Latin works: Virgil rather than Homer, Seneca rather than Plutarch. The enlightened Petrarch, who had discovered in 1345 in Verona a copy of Cicero’s letters to Atticus unknown at the time, complained of keeping in his library a beautiful manuscript of the Iliad that he could not read because he had no Greek.

Five centuries later, the leaders of the independence movements in the South American colonies, educated according to the inherited values of the Counter-Reformation as well as those of the Romantic school, all swore by Cicero, and learned from him the art of rhetoric, the craft of political strategies and the skill of refined prose style, as well as the duties of loyal friendship and the hidden benefits of old age. The libraries of these men (they were mostly men) from Mexico City to Lima, from Caracas to Buenos Aires, all boasted of keeping faith with Cicero’s words, and no lawyer’s study (they were mostly lawyers) was conceivable without a copy of Cicero’s Epistles. The ideas of Demosthenes and Aristotle indeed flourished in Latin America, but largely through Ciceronian assimilation and interpretation. Also, through their readings of Cicero and other Latin masters, these learned men fostered the notion that a library was a core component of an enlightened and free nation, essential not only in educating the soul, but principally in defining each citizen’s identity, as well as the identity of that conglomerate of souls which we call society.

In 181, seeking to free the Provinces of the Río de la Plata from the yoke of the Spanish crown, the young lawyer Mariano Moreno proposed that one of the first acts of the revolutionary council should consist in the founding of a national library that would contain all manner of books, without censorship of any kind. “Truth, like virtue,” Moreno wrote, “has in itself its own indisputable apology. By discussing and making it known, it will appear in all its luminous splendour. If restrictions are opposed to intellectual discourse, both the spirit and the matter will languish, and errors, lies, despair, fanaticism and stultification will become the banner of the nations, and will be the eternal cause of their abasement, their misery and their ruin.” Moreno justified the need for “a library for all” in these unequivocal terms: “If nations do not become educated, if their rights are not made for everyone, if each citizen does not know what his worth is, what he can achieve and what he is owed, new illusions will replace the old, and after vacillating for a time between a thousand uncertainties, it will be our lot to change tyrants without doing away with tyranny.” These cautions are the Nachleben of the words Denis Diderot had written a half-century earlier, and which Moreno had certainly read: “To educate a nation is to civilize it. To do away with its education is to return it to its primitive state of barbarism.”

Moreno’s fear of a new tyranny proved justified. The library, under the name of Biblioteca Pública de Buenos Aires—it was not called Nacional until 1884—did not fulfill its wished-for function. Set up under the Ciceronian notion of “a place for the instruction of the soul,” its mere existence did not suffice to prevent the rise of Argentina’s first tyrant, Juan Manuel de Rosas. Charles Darwin, during his expedition aboard HMS Beagle, met Rosas and assessed him as “a man of extraordinary character.” Rosas himself agreed, and admitted: “I have always admired autocratic dictators.” He said he believed that the manipulation of elections was necessary for political stability “because most of the country’s population is illiterate.” In his journal Darwin notes that an English merchant told him about a man who had murdered another; when arrested and questioned on his motive the man answered, “He spoke disrespectfully of General Rosas, so I killed him.” Darwin adds laconically: “At the end of a week the murderer was at liberty.” Darwin saw clearly “that Rosas ultimately would become the dictator,” and explains with a touch of irony that “to the term king, the people in this, as in other republics, have a particular dislike.” After leaving South America, Darwin heard that Rosas had been elected “with powers for a time altogether opposed to the constitutional principles of the republic.” The Argentinian historian Carlos Ibarguren described Rosas as little inclined to scholarly pursuits or to careful and reflective reading. “He was an autodidact, not fond of theories or literary notions. Life itself, in its elementary and rough force, was his great teacher.” The anti-intellectual movement in Argentina had begun.

Rosas’s state terrorism was carried out by his secret police, called the Mazorca or “ear of corn” in reference to the group’s unity, like the symbol of the fasces bundle under Mussolini. The mazorqueros would burst into the houses of suspected members of the opposition, arresting whomever they chose, and then torturing or butchering them. Many opponents had their throats slit, some were castrated, or had their beards or their tongues cut. It is thought that some two thousand people were killed between 1829 until 1852 by Rosas’s henchmen, foreshadowing the crimes of the military Junta in the 197s. As a perusal of any library will tell us, History seems to have the tedious habit of repeating itself.

Rosas’s reign ended in 1852. A caudillo from the province of Entre Rios, Juan José de Urquiza, with the support of the emperor of Brazil, defeated Rosas at the Battle of Caseros. The tyrant fled and, under disguise, boarded a ship for Britain, where he died in 1877, an embittered exile. “It is not the people who have overthrown me,” he remarked shortly before the end. “It was those apes, the Brazilians.”

Under the tyranny of Rosas, the Biblioteca Pública de Buenos Aires continued to stand, but it no longer served Moreno’s wishful purpose of educating the people according to the ethical precepts of Cicero. The “restorer of the Laws,” as Rosas chose to be called, began the noxious practice of turning the job of director of what would later be called the National Library into a political post, a practice still in effect in Argentina today. Rosas chose to name as director a brilliant scholar, Pedro de Angelis, the first historian of the new nation who in 183 had written a flattering biography of the tyrant. He gave De Angelis instructions to broadcast the government’s “intellectual projects,” a charge that earned De Angelis the loathing of almost all of his fellow intellectuals.

During Rosas’s time, Argentina’s intellectuals lived mostly abroad, in exile across the river in Uruguay where, after escaping Rosas’ mazorqueros, they attempted to keep the original spirit of the now distant Biblioteca Pública alive. Esteban Echeverría, the most remarkable Argentine writer of the time and a fierce opponent of Rosas, affirmed his wish for intellectual freedom in the new and now martyred nation: “Freedom,” he wrote, “is the right each person has to use without any constraints his faculties in service of well being and to choose the means that will serve to achieve that goal.” The Biblioteca, he believed, would, in better days, serve that freedom.

Borges, in a late story, “Utopia of a Tired Man,” suggested that history is a tale constantly revised and transformed, and that the ogres of the past become the saints of the future. In the story, Borges travels to the future and is shown by his guide tall buildings used as crematoria. “They were invented,” his guide explains, “by a philanthropist whose name, I believe, was Adolf Hitler.” In 213, during the presidency of Cristina Kirchner and 136 years after Rosas’s death, Mauricio Macri, as head of the governing body of the City of Buenos Aires, gave the name of Juan Manuel de Rosas to a municipal subway station.

My question is the following: how is it possible that a new nation (or an old one, for that matter), built on the belief in the importance of having a strong cultural institution at its core, an institution capable of holding the memory of its ancient roots and its modern experience, capable of educating its readers in free thought and civic ethics—how is it possible that this nation could so blatantly disregard its high purpose and instructional intent? How could things have gone so wrong?

I can think of three possible answers.

One: Any cultural institution is only as powerful and efficacious as the use we make of it. A knife can serve to butter bread or to murder Duncan. A library can educate a nation or sit dumb and helpless while the nation goes up in flames.

Two: Any cultural institution, however strong its potential, can be reduced to a mere adornment if a nation sees its own purpose as strictly limited to political power. Witness Anchises’ speech to his son Aeneas concerning the true purpose of Rome: “the true purpose [is] not cultural pursuits but lording over others,” thereby laying the ground for a long tradition of imperialistic ambitions still very much alive today:

Let others fashion from bronze more lifelike, breathing images—
For so they shall—and evoke living faces from marble;
Others excel as orators, others track with their instruments
The planets circling in heaven and predict when stars will appear.
But, Romans, never forget that government is your medium!
Be this your art:—to practice men in the habit of peace,
Generosity to the conquered, and firmness against aggressors.

Three: Any cultural institution entails both the possibility of learning and of imaginative change, and also the duty to understand the use we make of these tools of survival. Perhaps that possibility and that awareness are all we can consciously wish for. The future is undoubtedly bleak, but I believe that we still can make use of our wishing powers. Wishful thinking may be nothing but smoke and mirrors, but it is still thinking. I know I must sound naïve in saying this, but I believe that our libraries, as realms that foster thought, will continue to bear witness to our more noble human endeavours as well as to our malicious human madness, and to carry for future readers (if the stars are kind) clues about how to undertake the former and fend off the latter. And to teach us also the consequences of either choice.

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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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