Don Quixote and St. Thomas Aquinas
Editor’s Note: This is the longer version of the column that appeared in the Nov. 1 print issue.
Our rich Catholic heritage can be found in many places, including literature. Three undisputed masterpieces — Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Cervantes’ Don Quixote — are among the list of great Catholic works of the literary imagination.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of Part II of Don Quixote. Critics are agreed that the second is the greater of the two parts of the novel, which were separated by 10 years.
Unlike Dante, Cervantes didn’t set out to write a “Catholic” book, as such. But the faith permeates it, as it did the Spain of his day, from the knight’s first setting out to his final return, where death awaits him.
Although one book, Don Quixote speaks to us on several levels. At its most basic, it is a rollicking “road” novel, detailing the adventures of the self-styled knight and his “squire,” the country bumpkin Sancho Panza, two of the most famous characters in world literature. Many readers down through the centuries have read the book strictly for its entertainment value and have been amply rewarded.
It is also a satire, not of chivalry itself, but of the romanticized tales of knighthood that constituted the main fare of the reading public in Cervantes’ day. He plunged his knight’s lance into this genre, leaving a wound from which it never recovered.
Don Quixote styles himself a “knight errant,” who sets out as “the undoer of wrongs and injuries,” obligated to “favor and help the distressed and needy” and “making crooked things straight.” The old knight’s heart is in the right place — it’s his mind that’s the problem. It has become so addled from reading fanciful tales of famous knights and their exploits that he has lost touch with reality.
He charges windmills, thinking them to be giants; slashes wineskins with his sword, taking them for enemies; and mistakes a run-down country inn for a castle. He is generally considered to be mad, although he has periods in which he appears to be perfectly sane. In today’s psychiatric terminology, Don Quixote probably would be diagnosed as having a delusional disorder, which involves seeing and interpreting events in a manner at odds with reality.
Appearance and reality are always getting confused in Don Quixote, with the Don prone to believe that whatever he encounters is another “adventure” awaiting his military skills (which are minimal, at best).
As the supreme novel about friendship, Don Quixote stands alone. The characters’ relationship at the beginning is that of master and servant. But as time goes on and they ride across the Spanish countryside, endlessly conversing about whatever subject is at hand, it evolves into a true friendship in Part II. Despite all Sancho has been through, he can still describe Don Quixote in endearing terms:
“... he has nought of the rogue in him. On the contrary, he has a soul as simple as a pitcher: He could not do harm to anyone, but good to all; nor has he any malice in him; why, a child would convince him ‘tis night at noonday. And ’tis on account of this simplicity that I love him as I love the cockles of my heart and can’t invent a way of leaving him, no matter what piece of foolishness he does.”
The knight and his squire are men of faith, constantly commending themselves to God’s protection. In addition to his lance and sword, the knight also keeps his rosary beads handy.
Despite his delusional tendencies, Don Quixote is no middling theologian, as when he tells Sancho, “God alone knows the times and the seasons, and, for him, there is neither past nor future: All is present.” It would appear that Cervantes knew his St. Thomas Aquinas.
The knight also instructs his squire in the ways of divine Providence:
“I must tell you that there is no such thing as fortune in the world. Nothing that happens here below, whether of good or evil, comes by chance, but by the special disposition of Providence.” He describes God’s peace as “a precious legacy ... a jewel without which neither in heaven nor on earth can there be any happiness.”
From these passages and many others, it’s clear that Cervantes was a well-catechized Catholic of his day.
As time runs out for the feeble knight, he returns to his village, where he falls ill. Before he dies, he is delivered from his madness, which he credits to God’s power. His death, “after he had received all the sacraments,” plunges his household and Sancho Panza into deep mourning — a sadness shared by the legions of readers of Don Quixote.
F. Douglas Kneibert writes from Sedalia, Missouri.
- Nov. 1-14, 2015