This famous novel written by Miguel de Cervantes is often presented as the story of a man who seems to have lost his mind after reading too many chivalric books and starting to see the world in a distorted way. The adjective “quixotic” is a synonym of “impossible”, “imaginary” or “unrealizable”; denoting the folly of the acts and thoughts of the novel’s protagonist: Don Quixote de la Mancha.
To understand the character, it is necessary to frame the work within its time. It was written during the late Spanish Renaissance, the religious wars were ruining a decadent empire that had once tasted the glory with Columbus and the Catholic Monarchs, and the values and moral principles that had served as a guide for men during the Middle Ages laid in oblivion.
It is not difficult to imagine the time of this brave Don Quixote, living an unbalanced historical moment in imperial Spain. The death of an era and the introduction of a new one with its values and its radical changes will always be accompanied by disorder and chaos. However, it is fascinating to see the way in which the protagonist decides to stand up to a modern world full of baseness and worldliness, seeing it as a host of monsters and giants that must be defeated, and where nobility and virtue appear to be ancient beliefs.
But Don Quixote did not assimilate reality, meaning he did not see it as everybody else, but rather decided to go his own way, projecting the stories of the books he read and that many prominent knights, nobles and clergymen surely read during the Middle Ages. He did not see things for what they were, but for what they could be, based on the books he read; like his horse, the famous ‘Rocinante’, which was no more than a simple saddle of low quality, but which he considered “a better saddle than the famous ‘Babieca’ of ‘El Cid’ and Bucephalus of Alexander the Great.” That was the world of Don Quixote: a world that should not be seen with grief and sadness for the nostalgia of the past, but as one of opportunities and adventures in which the oldest values that men have always sought throughout history could be revived.
Then the character appears to the reader as a mad man surrounded by sane people who look at him with disdain and cause him harm for his clumsy ignorance. But it is worth asking, is he crazy, who seeks to vindicate historical values that men have always defended as irreplaceable? Or perhaps, is the one who gives in to modern trends and innovative ideas crazier, forgetting the eternal flame that their ancestors swore to defend?
I maintain that Don Quixote, despite the simplistic humorous readings of him, contains the essence of resistance to a world that, as described by Kierkegaard, “will come to an end to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.” The Castilian’s example is that of a superior mind that not only manages to dominate the body, but also succeeds in supplanting a negative reality with the reality of the buccaneer spirit that has characterized the protagonists of the most important feats in history. Don Quixote’s adventures are similar to those of Jesuit missionaries who, without thinking twice, embarked on journeys into the unknown to bring the true faith to the most remote peoples on Earth. Don Quixote is also a reflection of Scipio facing Hannibal with his well-known “cursed legions.” Quixote is Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Bolívar undertaking his fight against Spain, Napoleon crowning himself emperor; Quixote is the man who detaches himself from the mass and fights against the current to accomplish what his mind wills.
The expression “a Quixote of our time” is often used to refer to a person who has done something considered impossible or enormous, however, this is nothing more than a misuse of it. The Quixotes of our time are not those who vote for a candidate with better economic proposals and fewer regulation ideas than their opponent, nor are those who go to marches in the hope of changing the world. Just like the protagonist of Cervantes’s novel, who armed himself with old spears and rusty armor to ride through Castile in search of feats, the Quixotes of our days are the men who do not stop to think about how to change the world, but rather change it themselves through action and omitting the unnecessary considerations that spirits without vigor usually have. The modern Quixotes are those men who defend truth, honor and the flame of a tradition that our current society tramples with its desire for progress and tolerance.
The thinker Nicolás Gómez Dávila wrote that “unlimited tolerance is nothing more than a hypocritical way to resign.” There is a point at which tolerance simply becomes permissiveness for excess and debauchery, perhaps this is why Don Quixote did not tolerate a simple and sedentary life, something that would have been achievable given his status as a nobleman with a farm. Don Quixote did not resign before the disordered world that surrounded him. He did not kneel to enjoy the fleeting and instantaneous pleasures that it offered, nor did he let the flame of his pure and crazy love for Dulcinea del Toboso go out. The noble Castilian only gave up his life of adventure to die sweetly and peacefully, entrusting his soul to God and confessing the desire to have read books that would bring him closer to him. This could be seen as a resemblance of King Charles I of Spain, the emperor of universal dominion, who, after a life full of power and success, retires to a monastery to finally reach the eternal rest. So did Luis Camões, writer of the ‘Lusiadas’ the pinnacle of Portuguese poetry. This and quarrelsome man died in Lisbon with the joy of “dying with his country”, which had been submitted to the Spanish rule. These were men who did not tolerate the monotonous and normal rhythm of life that society offered them, taking advantage of adventurous opportunities to transcend their existence.
With these examples in mind, it is worthwhile for a modern man to look around and reflect on his decisions. Has he decided to fill his life with adventure, or has he resigned to the mellifluous talk of “the new normal”? The example of Don Quixote, like that of so many men who have turned their backs on a stable existence without major problems, is the example of indomitable spirits who cannot stand being camels and decide to be lions with baby aspirations, to put it in a Nietzschean analogy. Being intolerant is the most basic duty in order to transform the mentality that we have been forced to adopt socially; intolerant of stupidity, of what goes against nature and against modern “values” that prevent us from being close to the blood of our ancestors.
Hand in hand with intolerance must come indifference to the opinions of minds without the same capabilities as those of superior men. Men cannot act alone, but men must act without seeking to be the center of attention at all times.
» Without giving notice of his intention to anyone, and without anybody seeing him one morning before the dawning of the day (which was one of the hottest of the month of July) he donned his suit of armor, mounted Rocinante with his patched-up helmet on, braced his buckler, took his lance, and by the back door of the yard sallied forth upon the plain in the highest contentment and satisfaction at seeing with what ease he had made a beginning with his grand purpose. «
Later the knight-errant would be joined by his faithful squire Sancho Panza, but the fundamental aspect of this passage is Don Quixote’s attitude towards the feat he was undertaking. First of all, he leaves with a disposition to greatness, imposing and majestic, detached from simple concerns such as money. He goes out in search of honor, glory and yearning to have his adventures immortalized in the memory of the people. “Happy the age, happy the time in which shall be made known my deeds of fame, worthy to be molded in brass, carved in marble, limned in pictures, for a memorial for ever.” However, the aforementioned indifference cannot be interpreted as a simple disdain for any opinion other than his own. It is important for men to have examples that they can emulate, to speak with other wise men and with men who enjoy respect for their knowledge and their unshakable spirit. They will be an important guide to follow the path that leads to perfecting the soul in the search for honor and glory, in the longing to transcend. Don Quixote would not have done anything of what he did without having seen in Amadís of Gaula or Palmerín of England the examples to emulate. And it is not wrong for modern men to look back to find those men who have unmade their chains and walked the path of true freedom, so long as it does not become a way of pretending to be something one is not.
Therefore, Don Quixote is the personification of a fierce understanding that seeks and finds complete freedom and power. While the doctor and his family advised him to reconsider and leave the adventurous life that he led, Quixote firmly clung to his convictions and demonstrated that he enjoyed the power that every man should desire: the power to be lord and sovereign of one’s own life and death, which should be chosen and not submitted to the will of others. How many men of the present live a life of submission and slavery to the decisions of somebody else who only sees in them docile and weak wills? It is not necessary to think too much about the disgusting lives of those who give up their manhood in order to become one more body that will walk on earth and leave without any glory. While their ancestors, warriors, hunters and navigators look at men from eternity, the conquest that has meaning for modern men is one that brings with it the approval of others, the approval of the commoner and plebeian masses.
Modern man is nothing but what Órtega y Gasset expressed when speaking of the mass-man: a mediocre being, an abnormality, a pathological deformation that is frequently reproduced. This is the product of the new social order in which existence is reduced to an experience of consumption and pleasure with a material reward for the sake of approval. The latter leads to man seldom finding something that is superior to him, a mission or enterprise that is worthwhile and that entails the sacrifice of all the comforts to which body and mind have become accustomed. Órtega y Gasset, in contrast to the mass-man, made an apology for the minority: men with the mission of governing and leading those who are born to be followers. In reality, not all are predestined to submit others or to be submitted; it is the decisions and attitudes of man that lead him to fit into one of the two groups. Castrated of aspirations and purpose in life, many choose the easy path of the sheep that does not complain. But others, through the imposition of duties and obligations, become aristocrats of the spirit who direct and lead, as Quixote did with Sancho; a faithful but docile servant. In short, “each one is the son of his works”, and this is how Don Quixote understood it.
After these reflections, it seems to me of vital importance to rescue the most valuable lessons offered by the pleasant reading of the Castilian nobleman in modern times. The first and most important of all is to understand that when modern man is accused of insanity, it often happens that in him resides the sanity of freedom and the millennial understanding that does not succumb to the mass-man. This man may be the one who reads forbidden texts, exercises his body frequently, sunbathes and looks at the stars without having to check his phone, understands that every day he can learn something new and improve himself, values the friendship that is worth being preserved as an irreplaceable treasure, seeks the truth and does not let anyone impose useless and unnecessary duties or obligations to him. He is a rebel with order, a revolutionary of tradition; a true Quixote of this time. This man also understands what he is and what he can be, trying to grow and not decline or waver at any time.
Don Quixote attacking the windmills is the man who faces his fears and fights with courage against them, without any consideration, understanding death as something sublime and necessary. Just as a good day brings good rest, a life well lived brings good death, Machiavelli wrote. The modern Quixotes are the parents who teach their children to fight and strike, even if the enemy is stronger, because honor is not negotiable. They are the men who stand up to injustice and protect those in need. Don Quixote teaches modern man to reclaim everything that seems buried by progress, to remove it and dust it off to build a virile and prominent society, emulating those that have had the most brilliance in history.
“The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote De La Mancha” is a must-read for anyone seeking a light of healing in this crazy world of ruins that we inhabit. Its protagonist is the eternal example of natural order that swims against the current in a sea of eunuchs, servants and simpletons. The man who seeks a life of adventure and relevance, of meaning and importance, must necessarily turn his eyes to the example of this brave knight who, with no other motivation than to make history through his adventures, left an unmatched legacy as a role model for they who dare to take up their mounts, bear the spear, and attack the giants chaining our freedom.
Juan Vargas Hernandez is a junior studying History.
2 thoughts on “Don Quixote: A tale of Sanity in Times of Madness”
I believe you meant to write, “… lay in oblivion”, not “… laid in oblivion.”
This article is a pretty severe misreading and misapplication of the book.