The Truth Beneath The Rose
Will the Truth set you free?
In this post I explore the atheistic implications of the Book ‘The Name Of The Rose’ by Umberto Eco. It therefore contains massive spoilers!! If you read the book already or weren’t planning to, you can read on, otherwise it is perhaps best you come back later.
“Give me strength to face the truth, the doubt within my soul
No longer I can justify the bloodshed in His name
Is it a sin to seek the truth, the truth beneath the rose?
Pray with me so I will find the gate to Heaven’s door”
(Within Temptation – Truth Beneath The Rose)
According to Shakespeare’s Juliette there is an essence to roses that exists independent of their name. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. This is in marked contrast to the end of Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name Of The Rose’ which left me a slightly different person. “Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.”. Yesterday’s rose remains by its name, we hold but empty names. When the roses are gone, which is inevitably, we hold on to them only through hollowed-out names. With fading memories attached to notions whose essence have faded through time. Suggesting, as it does in the middle of the story, that when we are deprived of even the name of something or someone, to remember them by, that truly nothing is left of the Truth Beneath The Rose.
Nunc ubi Regulus aut ubi Romulus aut ubi Remus?
Stat Roma pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus
“Where is Regulus now, and where is Romulus, and where is Remus ?
The antique Rome only remains through its name, empty names are all that we
You can look up different interpretations for the last sentence and the title of Eco’s book. As a good poet Umberto has only partially explained their meaning. And yet the book is not a poetry book, it is a murder mystery against the back drop of an Italian Monastery, or so it seems. Because what it actually does is introduce you to a perfect little medieval micro-cosmos, on the verge of its apocalypse. Leaving you, in the end, a traveler coming from a world which God has wiped from the face of earth.
Religion is at the center of the book, just as it was at the historical center of the High Middle Ages. As such you don’t need to be an atheist to find parts of the book somewhat tedious. You can skip certain sections of it with impunity. Yet, don’t do it too gratuitously, in order not to miss the description of the way a society becomes when God is The Truth from which everything is derived. For if you are not an atheist when you begin the book, it is not impossible you will become one halfway through.
You will find this world very different from your own. Hypocrisy is everywhere so that even ‘the good’ guys have blind spots. For instance witch-trail inquisitors that maintain they do not use torture, as it’s just the soldiers who torture on their explicit instructions. Any theological idea can become suspect of heresy, holding a black cat at the wrong moment is instant proof of witchcraft, lengthy debates on the poverty of Jesus are actually about the papal jurisdiction in the real world, silence is maintained around multiple monks’ lapsing chastity and laughter is considered evil! The trial -where one of the monks is questioned on the charge of heresy, where everything he says is twisted to imply something incriminating or when it is clearly a ‘good’ answer, as indicative as something a heretic would say to try to beat the wrath- is especially harrowing.
One of the themes of the book is the question ‘whether gathering knowledge’ is a sin. A fundamental discussion in which both parties ‘the pragmatic worldly-s’ and the ‘purist religious’ must use theological arguments to get their way. While the first are really only interested in having as much access to as much possible information, regardless of the source, the latter want only that which supports the one God-opinion and prefer to keep things on ‘need-to-know-basis’. In the end the antagonists choose rather for the annihilation of all knowledge to prevent the leaking out of some ‘inconvenient truths’.
I would have called this world very ‘alien’ to us, if it were not for the very recognizable behavior in the end.
Much of the book is a tribute to rational investigation. In that respect it reminds of a ‘Sherlock Holmes’ story. Yet this may all just have been a ruse by Eco as he brings the over-arching religion, to which everything must ultimately be aligned, in inevitable collision with that Reason. Eco thus demonstrates that the cognitive dissociation (practically ubiquitous in our own time) that allows people to maintain ‘useful rationality’ together with ‘inherited irrational beliefs’ is not tenable in the end. Depressingly, albeit realistic he makes the mentor William do a 180° turn and discount rational conclusions because they contradict theology; going as far as to say there can’t be a discernable rational order to the universe as this would limit the freedom of God:
“The science Bacon spoke of rests unquestionably on these propositions. You understand, Adso, I must believe that my proposition works, because I learned it by experience; but to believe it I must assume there are universal laws. Yet I cannot speak of them, because the very concept that universal laws and an established order exist would imply that God is their prisoner, whereas God is something absolutely free, so that if He wanted, with a single act of His will He could make the world different.”
If there ever was a better argument to illustrate how religion will eventually be the undoing of our world I’ve yet to find it. It may not be very surprising, in the end, that from such a conflict of paradigms a sort of nihilism crops up.
“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.”
“…The only truths that are useful are instruments to be thrown away.”
His pupil is not convinced, it seems, and reaches a rather different conclusion.
“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 primogenial 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?” (underlining is mine, obviously)
Here is the argument that Adso is making; Any scaffolding of the essence of God, any rudimentary structure to His ‘Being’ is a limitation to the choices God can take. Just as who we are will limit the range of potential choices for us, the same goes for a hypothetical ‘God’. If God is to be absolutely unlimited ( and he must be absolutely unlimited or concede to a limit imposed by another “(higher?) power”), he cannot have such ‘scaffolding’ as this would imply a limitation. But saying that there thus can’t be an essence or a scaffolding to God makes it impossible for him to exist.
A filter that potentially must allow for any solution to fall through can’t have an essence, it can’t exist. It is a similar paradox to God not being able to create a rock he can’t lift. It is also related to the question ‘who made God?’, ‘who determines what God is?’ since ‘who God is’ is already a limitation on what God can do. Our past determines in a great part who we are and in turn limits the possible outcomes of our actions. In order for a person to be able to exhibit ‘any-possible-action’ requires him to be a virtual superposition of all possible persons simultaneously. Intrinsic in the definition of ‘Being’ lies a limitation excluding all possibilities that are linked to things you are not.
Adso’s primogenial chaos has absolute potential, but it has no intelligence, self-awareness or identity. As soon as an intelligence, a personality is projected onto chaos the ‘Absolute Possible’ is reduced to ‘The Probable and The Likely’. God can’t do anything he wouldn’t ever do (just like most of us wouldn’t consider fornicating or defecating on a stage for all to see). But the fact that we aren’t “free” to consider it (and this will return in the post on free will) and the fact that both us and God aren’t “free” to do anything we [don’t] want, inhibits us (both) from being God since by simply ‘Being’ a limit is placed on our “absolute freedom”. God becomes an empty name for a “Rose” that never existed nor ever could.
“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 think Adso’s mentor means religious learning in this case, as this is the only knowledge they are thought and the only learning they have been free to communicate. It seems Adso also understood it in this way:
“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?”
The question is never answered, nor is it required. Either answer would only underline how their investigation has put them onto crash-course with their society. Unspoken it is decided, if they are to live, they shouldn’t talk of such matters again.
This classic Sherlock&Watson or Batman&Robin detective story turns out to be a clever ruse as the realization grows that the real subject is the wilting Rose in all of us. God, The Girl, the library, even the, for the reader, familiar relation between mentor and pupil is left in a wilting state. Both characters suffer considerable and rather opposite changes to their opinions and character, leaving nothing familiar as they part forever.
The Rose, the ideal for which each was striving in his own way, like Disney’s Enchanted Rose, is wilting. The aging Adso closes his account of the events, declaring he does not longer know what his memoirs are really about or whom they are for. The things of the past have gone, leaving him cold and alone. Yesterday’s Rose only remains through its name, we hold but empty names.
Pray for me ’cause I have lost my faith in holy wars
Is paradise denied to me ’cause I can’t take no more?
Has darkness taken over me, consumed my mortal soul?
All my virtues sacrificed, can Heaven be so cruel?
How can blood be our salvation
And justify the pain that we have caused throughout the times
Will I learn what’s truly sacred?
Will I redeem my soul, will truth set me free?
(Within Temptation – Truth Beneath The Rose)