The assignment was to read the first book, Gargantua, of the five that make up the complete text of Gargantua and Pantagruel. I was unsure as to whether or not I would read the remaining four books. I’m now fairly sure that I probably won’t.
Rabelais is scatological with frequent references to urination and defecation. Now granted, as we get older we’re frequently obsessed with those functions, largely because they don’t work as well as they used to, still most of us don’t talk about them.
Presumably Rabelais is a great author, and Gargantua is a great book because of its ideational content. So what is that content?
- An attack on the monastic life. The monastery is characterized as being unproductive, and the monks as being unlearned.
- An attack on scholasticism.
- A satirical description of a war over flatbreads. Note that Rabelais cites the maxim that money is the sinews of war. This is something that we saw referred to in our discussion of Machiavelli. Machiavelli places the sinews of war in the soldiers of a nation.
- An idealistic description of a Utopian community, the Abbey of Theleme. The motto of the Abbey is “Do as thou wilt.” Rabelais presumes that if men and women are raised as ladies and gentlemen, and if they are given food, shelter, clothing, and everything that their little hearts could desire, that they will be good and decent people.
That’s from a Romantic persepective, of course. Other perspectives, such as a more purely Christian perspective, see man as rooted in sin, and constantly in a state of spiritual warfare with the desires of the spirit against the desires of the flesh. There is, in Rabelais’ Theleme no apparent safeguard against the man or woman who yields to unholy, or perverse desires.
The man who says we should live in accord with nature has no real answer to those characters, in de Sade and elsewhere, who assert that nature has made them cruel, and that their vicious acts arise out of acting in accord with nature.
Utopias make pleasant dreams but turn into nightmares when anyone tries to implement them.
Next up are four essays by Montaigne. I made a mistake and omitted the essays from the reading list. That mistake has been rectified.