WITTGENSTEIN’S LADDER

“It was the greatest library in Christendom,” William said. “Now,” he added, “the Antichrist is truly at hand, because no learning will hinder him any more. For that matter, we have seen his face tonight.”

“Whose face?” I asked, dazed.

“Jorge, I mean. In that face, deformed by hatred of philosophy, I saw for the first time the portrait of the Antichrist, who does not come from the tribe of Judas, as his heralds have it, or from a far country. The Antichrist can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often be-fore them, at times instead of them. Jorge did a diabolical thing because he loved his truth so lewdly that he dared anything in order to destroy falsehood. Jorge feared the second book of Aristotle because it perhaps really did teach how to distort the face of every truth, so that we would not become slaves of our ghosts. 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 insane passion for the truth.”

“But, master,” I ventured, sorrowfully, “you speak like this now because you are wounded in the depths of your spirit. There is one truth, however, that you discovered tonight, the one you reached by interpreting the clues you read over the past few days. Jorge has won, but you have defeated Jorge because you exposed his plot. …”

“There was no plot,” William said, “and I discovered it by mistake.”

The assertion was self-contradictory, and I couldn’t decide whether William really wanted it to be. “But it was true that the tracks in the snow led to Brunellus,” I said, “it was true that Adelmo committed suicide, it was true that Venantius did not drown in the jar, it was true that the labyrinth was laid out the way you imagined it, it was true that one entered the finis Africae by touching the word ‘quatuor,’ it was true that the mysterious book was by Aristotle. … I could go on listing all the true things you discovered with the help of your learning …”

“I have never doubted the truth of signs, Adso; they are the only things man has with which to orient himself in the world. What I did not understand was the relation among signs. I arrived at Jorge through an apocalyptic pattern that seemed to underlie all the crimes, and yet it was accidental. I arrived at Jorge seeking one criminal for all the crimes and we discovered that each crime was committed by a different person, or by no one. I arrived at Jorge pursuing the plan of a perverse and rational mind, and there was no plan, or, rather, Jorge himself was overcome by his own initial design and there began a sequence of causes, and concauses, and of causes contradicting one another, which proceeded on their own, creating relations that did not stem from any plan. Where is all my wisdom, then? I behaved, stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe.”

“But in imagining an erroneous order you still found something. …”

“What you say is very fine, Adso, and I thank you. The order that our mind imagines is like a net, or like a ladder, built to attain something. But afterward you must throw the ladder away, because you discover that, even if it was useful, it was meaningless. Er muoz gelîchesame die leiter abewerfen, sô er an ir ufgestigen. … Is that how you say it?”

“That is how it is said in my language. Who told you that?”

“A mystic from your land. He wrote it somewhere, I forget where. And it is not necessary for somebody one day to find that manuscript again. The only truths that are useful are instruments to be thrown away.”

“You have no reason to reproach yourself: you did your best.”

“A human best, which is very little. It’s hard to accept the idea that there cannot be an order in the universe because it would offend the free will of God and His omnipotence. So the freedom of God is our condemnation, or at least the condemnation of our pride.”

I dared, for the first and last time in my life, to express a theological conclusion: “But how can a necessary being exist totally polluted with the possible? What difference is there, then, between God and primigenial chaos? Isn’t affirming God’s absolute omnipotence and His absolute freedom with regard to His own choices tantamount to demonstrating that God does not exist?”

William looked at me without betraying any feeling in his features, and he said, “How could a learned man go on communicating his learning if he answered yes to your question?”

I did not understand the meaning of his words. “Do you mean,” I asked, “that there would be no possible and communicable learning any more if the very criterion of truth were lacking, or do you mean you could no longer communicate what you know because others would not allow you to?”

At that moment a section of the dormitory roof collapsed with a huge din, blowing a cloud of sparks into the sky. Some of the sheep and the goats wandering through the grounds went past us, bleating horribly. A group of servants also went by us, shouting, nearly knocking us down.

“There is too much confusion here,” William said. “Non in commotione, non in commotione Dominus.”

Umberto Eco, The Name of The Rose.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: TWENTY SIXTEEN: IN REVIEW | TEETH, FEET & FINGERS

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