The ‘Wisdom’ of Madness in Don Quixote, The Man From La Mancha
Too much sanity may be madness, and maddest of all—-to see life as it is and not as it should be. – Miguel de Cervantes
Don Quixote, the seemingly mad and always errant knight, was moved by the deepest desire of his soul to fight the injustices of the world of his time. Though what he did always fell apart in absurdity, his motivations were always good and noble. The quality of his heart and that of his soul shined through the “madness” in every case. As we follow him and his squire, Sancho Panza, on their “knightly adventures,” we know in our own hearts that Don Quixote really does see the injustices of the world and that his chivalry is true, even if it appears to be slightly “off the rails” of reality. He is, in his own ironic, satirical way, one of God’s saints sallying forth to kill the dragons (the evils) that often fall willfully upon the innocent and the weak.
Miguel de Cervantes, the author of “Don Quixote, Man of La Mancha,” had been a soldier himself. He had fought with the Christian forces under Don Juan of Austria against the Ottoman Turkish forces at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The Ottomans had assembled one of the largest, most well equipped, sea and land forces in history, with the intention of conquering Rome and the rest of Europe. The Christian forces met them in the largest naval battle in history up to that time, in the waters of the Adriatic Sea, off of Lepanto, Greece, and, miraculously, defeated them there. Cervantes was wounded in the battle. One of his hands was badly mangled. He went home to Spain after the battle to recover and while recuperating, he looked around at the world of his own times and saw that the old ways of the Code of Chivalry were dying. So, he wrote this great piece of literature to try, through the satirical image and character of Don Quixote, to revive that dying moral code. He was doing in Spain what Chaucer had tried to do in England with his “Canterbury Tales.”
The quote that begins this article is a fine example of the kind of ironic “wisdom” that comes out of the old, errant knight’s mind. To the inhabitants of Don Quixote’s fictional world, he was mad. But as the Don ironically says, “Too much sanity may be madness.”
Thomas Merton writes in his famous essay, “A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann,” that, “[Eichmann] was thoughtful, orderly, unimaginative. He had a profound respect for the system, for law and order. He was obedient, loyal, a faithful officer of a great state. He served his government well…Eichmann was devoted to duty, and proud of his job.” Adolf Eichmann, you might remember, was the architect and manager of the Nazi effort to eliminate the Jews from the face of the earth. He called it the “Final Solution.”
Merton goes on to write, “The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing. We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous.”
Christians today are often accused of being “mad,” not unlike the fictional people of La Mancha saw the errant knight, Don Quixote. Because Christians believe in a universal moral code modeled by Jesus, we are often accused, by the presumed “sane,” atheist “intellectuals,” and the politically correct relativists and positivists of this era, of being the “mad” followers of a primitive, defunct and discredited ideology. We are seen as foolish “knights errant” doing battle against “windmills” when we stand for our belief in the moral duty of all human beings to respect, honor and protect human life, from conception to natural death. The “enlightened” scientists and academics, the “sane,” believe that such “antique” and “traditional” moral values limit the “freedom” of the individual to do as they wish with “their” bodies, or “their” lives. They believe that they are the sane ones and that we Christians are as mad as Don Quixote. What an irony! What an incredible irony!
The sane of our time have created laws, with emotional fervor, and with objectively manipulated legal, and “philosophical” arguments (otherwise known as rationalizations), that promote the legally sanctioned ending of life at both ends of the spectrum in the guises of freedom and justice. Any “freedom” that requires the denial of the inalienable right to life of any human person, is, in reality, merely totalitarianism all dressed up in the “costume” of freedom.
The mistake often made by the “sane” is to, “see the world [only] as it is, and not as it should be.” The Christian knows that the world, as it is, is fallen, and certainly not as it should be. The “sane” among us are most often motivated by the narrow desires of the individual ego, or by the ideological demands of a single group, or political party–right or left. True Christians, those often identified by the sane as the “mad” among us, are motivated by the known and accepted reality that life, and liberty, really are “inalienable,” God-given rights, and belong to all human persons— from conception to natural death—equally.
The “sane” have made Liberty the highest right and good. Christians know that “inalienable rights” have a natural hierarchy that must be obeyed or unintended consequences will come home to roost. The “mad” Christian knows (not just believes) that Liberty takes second seat to Life. The “mad” Christian knows (not just believes) that Liberty can not exist, without Life and, therefore, the promotion and protection of Life must be the highest, most valued right and duty of an individual, and of a society. If this is not so, then everything else, including Liberty, becomes uncertain, debatable, and indefensible. To deny the intrinsic value of a single human person from conception to natural death, in the name of “mercy,” or “justice,” or “freedom,” can be nothing other than a lie. To do so is merely to disguise selfishness with the “names” of real, and selfless values.
Christians see the madness alright and they are required to “do battle” with it. But the Christian’s “weapons” are righteousness, faith, hope and love. The “sane,” when push comes to shove, will toss the mask of their so-called “tolerance” aside and attempt to silence or remove those who expose their real intolerance, with whatever means are at their disposal. The Christian, on the other hand, is moved by grace to love his/her enemies, to pray for them, to return only good to those who would harm them. A Christian, in other words, has the courage to love as Jesus loved. The “sane” willfully destroy the lives, the reputations, the natural dignity of others, in order to protect their own private, immediate desires and ideologies. The Christian is willing to sacrifice his or her all; time, talent, treasure, even his or her own life in imitation of Christ, for the sake of love.
The “sane” of our day are committed to the “pleasure principle,” the desiccated roots of which cling desperately to the shallow, depleted dirt of selfishness. Christians, on the other hand, are committed to actual, real principles. They are dedicated to the objective, universal principles of morality, which have their roots sunk deep into the soil of Christ’s transcendent love for others. The “sane” secularist measures the value of all things, and all other persons, in reference to him or her self, and willfully refuses to submit to anything greater than his or her own private ego. The “mad’ Christian on the other hand, humbly submits willingly to be ruled by the Will of God, He Who Is eternal and unconditional love. And in that submission the “mad” Christian chooses willingly to serve all of God’s children—equally.
Yes, we Christians are Don Quixote “mad” in the eyes of the “sane” world. Because we look at the world and recognize that it is not what it should be, we know that we are challenged by the example of Jesus, to “do loving battle with” the injustices promoted by the “sane.” We must do this with humility, courage, forgiveness, and a self-sacrificing willingness to love as Jesus loved. We must, like Jesus, take the lashes of insult, the pain of accusation, and the crosses of suffering that will come our way for confronting the realities of arrogance and injustice that the “sane” have established in the present age. We must respond in the confidence of our faith, and with no forces greater than mercy and and loving kindness. We can do this actively and prayerfully, with joyful, faith-filled hearts. For we can trust that God’s grace will be our courage and that salvation will be our reward.