Into the story of these three men Iain Pears has woven many parallels. Each of them, as they’re groping for meaning and a just way to respond to life’s challences, lives in times of great turbulence, times that mark the end of an era. In such times people go desperate, and not sure of what has befallen them or how to end their plight, they’ll look for who can be blamed for their misfortunes. Those are always near at hand; they’re everyone who’s ‘different’, the heretics and the Jews in particular.
To underscore this point, all of Pears’ main characters fall in love with girls who, in this sense, are ‘different’.
In more or less normal times, bearing a stigma may cause but slight annoyances that may be taken for granted, always to be expected, never to be ignored, but when disaster strikes and spirits become incensed it quickly escalates from harassment to a matter of life and death.
So with Julia, the Jewess, in the Second World War, so with Rebecca, the heretic, when the Black Death engulfs Europe and so with Sophia, the pagan, at the fall of the Roman world, though Pears deals each a different fate.
Was Sophia’s repudiation of Manlius just?
In favour of his ruthlessness, he argues that he saved thousands of lives at the cost of only a handful. She doesn’t comply with his reasoning. Killing innocent people for a cause however noble is inhumane and, as such, always to be rejected. It depends on where one is willing to draw the line, at zero or at ‘some’. Manlius, though accepting the general principle, allowed himself some slippage, which to Sophia was unforgivable, not worthy of a true philosopher.
To be able to act, however, a man of authority always needs leeway, and when he’s crossed the line his equals will judge his actions by their outcomes and call him a criminal or raise him to sainthood, as in Manlius’ case.
Living by her principles is what made Sophia stand out as ‘different’. Ironically, she, as a pagan holding convictions completely at variance with Christian doctrines, also became a Christian saint, not on behalf of the clergy, but by her veneration by common people.
Manlius’ second argument regards the virtue of his acts. According to him, an act can’t be called virtuous, unless it is performed in full understanding of the circumstances and the possible consequences, and the virtue of it derives not from the act but from the understanding.
What he means to say is that what he did to save Provence from devastation should be seen as virtuous, because he ‘understood’, beforehand, all its facets and implications. By understanding it in its entirety, having foreseen everything it entailed, including murder, and assuming responsibility, he absolves himself from guilt, as any act, however cruel and despicable in itself, that is part of a virtuous endeavour becomes itself virtuous by understanding it in its context.
A self-serving sophism, if ever there was one, though in wide acclaim: ‘The ends justify the means,’ as we learn from Machiavelli.
It reminds of Obama, when he remarked with the arrogance of power: ‘... but we tortured some folks’ and, subsequently, drowns the fact in a sea of exonerating circumstances. It reminds of the Inquisition and, of course, of the Nazis who ‘understood’ everything about extermination, which they called ‘die Endlösung’ - the Final Solution, and cleared their conscience by comparable lines of reasoning.
Referring to this passage in Manlius’ ‘Dream’, Pears has the old Jewish philosopher say to Olivier the Noyen:
‘Dear boy, I must tell you a secret.’
‘I do believe it is wrong.’
If anyone, Pears couldn’t have chosen a judge more suitable to the case, as the old man had every reason to weigh the concerns of those on the receiving end of history.
I doubt if, at that instant, the subject got Olivier’s full attention. He had decided to make a stand for the sake of righteousness and live up to the consequences, which in his case proved to be harsh. As Pears so poignantly puts it, much of his remaining years he spent in the sanctuary where Sophia had lived ninehundred years earlier. There, he composed his best poems inside his head, lacking in means to communicate them, but lovingly cared for by his Rebecca.