What makes the novel Don Quixote such a classic work of literature is its ability to speak to readers across all ages. It is indeed a hard heart which, having reached the conclusion of the novel, is not saddened.
This sadness arises not only from the death of the Man of La Mancha, whom one has come to love, but also because of Don Quixote's shattering awakening that his life's quest, his dream, has not come to fruition. Everything that he has lived and fought for has fallen apart. He dies believing that his friends were correct in their perception of him being delusional.
The reader recognises Don Quixote as a man of extremes, but one can also see in this 'knight-errant' glimpses of oneself. How often do we build and then see what we have built up destroyed? How often do we aspire, only to see our aspirations thwarted? How often do we love, only to find our loves unrequited? How often do we desire, only to find our desires unrealised?
The human condition is such that in every age we perceive ourselves to be a different creature. As a child we are joyful for the world brings little care or trepidation. As an adolescent we seem indestructible, for life is long, and we cannot be conquered. As a young adult we seek the honour of society. As a parent we wish our children to surpass us when they leave home. And, as we grow old, we recall the opportunities that were lost and the brevity of life.
Every succeeding age sees us looking back in hindsight at the foolishness of what has gone by. All of us share similar illusions to those of the Man of La Mancha, living according to ideals that some neighbour will perceive as hollow or foolish.
So many life lessons are taught throughout the course of the novel, as in the instance when Sancho is appointed Governor of an island, caught up in a scenario where he and Don Quixote are being played as fools. Here the two central characters, Don Quixote and Sancho, knowing none of the jest, are in deep conversation as to how one should view such a post of esteem.
Don Quixote's instructions are as good for Sancho as they are to any father blessing his son or daughter as they go into the world. These two men may be fools but there is so much wisdom in their foolishness: "First of all, my son, you are to fear God for therein lies wisdom, and, being wise, you cannot go astray in anything. And in the second place, you are to bear in mind who you are and seek to know yourself, which is the most difficult knowledge to acquire that can be imagined. Knowing yourself, you will not be puffed up, like the frog that sought to make himself as big as the ox. Do this, and the memory of the fact that you once herded pigs in your own country will come to serve as the ugly feet to the tail of your folly" (Cervantes, 1949, pp. 924-925).
We come to understand as we read the novel that each one of us is both wise and foolish. We are wise when we act in accord with our highest self, striving amidst the cacophony and menagerie of what life throws at us to be the best that we can possibly be. We are foolish when in the face of those who scoff at virtue, we retreat and hide in a corner hoping we will remain inconspicuous.
At the heart of Don Quixote is a theme that should strike at the core of everyone's heart. When we identify with the other characters who are mourning as they surround Don Quixote's deathbed, we understand that the body which is giving up its spirit is in fact the future "us".
Like Don Quixote, we will have had our Impossible Dreams, our ambitions, motivations, and loves, things that seemed at the time paramount to our lives. We may have forgotten these ideals and muses over the course of our lives, however, at the point of death the sum of how true we have been to our life's desires will become evident.
St John Chrysostom
The fourth century Archbishop of Constantinople, St John Chrysostom, in one of his insightful homilies, once opened up a polemic about the nature of foolishness as perceived by the secular eyes of this world. Stretching analogy to the point of tension, Chrysostom spoke about Christ as follows:
"Only a fool would attempt to change the world with a simple message of love and peace. So we can conclude that Jesus was a fool. Only fools would agree to follow such a man, and then continue his mission even after he had been killed. So we can conclude that the apostles were fools. Only fools would take seriously the message which a bunch of fools were preaching, and accept that message. So we can conclude that all of us are fools.
"All this is hardly surprising. God did not choose a wise philosopher to proclaim the Gospel, but a humble carpenter. And for his apostles he chose fishermen and tax collectors, [so] can we claim to be any better? Of course not. Even those among us who have been educated know that in relation to the Gospel our education is worthless, so let all happily admit we are fools.
"Then we will happily commit ourselves to trying to change the world. Yet weren't those apostles cowardly and timid? Aren't we equally afraid of trying to persuade strangers to change their lives? Doesn't the crucifixion of Christ give us ample reason to be frightened? Yes but His resurrection gives us superhuman courage" (Chrysostom, 1996, p. 52).
Many of the greatest men and women who have ever lived were perceived by their peers as the greatest fools of their time: Socrates in Ancient Athens, St Francis in medieval Italy, Gandhi on the Indian Subcontinent, and Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. Each of these individuals only became a heroic figure after his death, after the dust had had time to settle on the confused collective consciences of his time.
The fool is the concrete reality of the creed: that a man can be in the world but not of it. Chrysostom's homily challenges us, as does Cervantes' novel. All of us wish for affirmation from our peers. But some of the greatest "fools" who ever lived were those who understood that the social consensus demands uniformity and often rejects the truth, however obvious and necessary that truth may be. For the tyranny of conformity insists thats all must march in step regardless.
In such circumstances, to be called by God to be a witness to truth can be perilous when one is required to stand like a lighthouse, a beacon amidst the tumult of furious sea. It can also mean being like a child building a sandcastle on the shore, knowing that all the effort expended is at the mercy of the tide which will one day call it back as her own. It is a call to be a fool - to have an unswerving belief and commitment to that incredible Impossible Dream.
Dr Andrew Thomas Kania is Director of Spirituality at Aquinas College in Perth, WA and also lectures at Oxford University, UK.