Saturday, January 10, 2009

Quo Vadis

Near the end of Quo Vadis Petronius (Arbiter) writes a letter in reply to his nephew Vicinius who has fled Rome with his bride, Ligia. In the letter Petronius discusses his philosophy and his fate contrasting it with the Christian belief that Vicinius has accepted. He says:

"There are only two philosophers that I care about, Pyrrho and Anacreon. You know what they stand for. The rest, along with the new Greek schools and all the Roman Stoics, you can have for the price of beans. Truth lives somewhere so high that even the gods can't see it from Olympus."(QV, p. 566)

It is interesting to note that Pyrrho is noted for a philosophy of skepticism that claims the impossibility of knowledge. For him our own ignorance or doubt should induce us to withdraw into ourselves, avoiding the stress and emotion which belong to the contest of vain imaginings. This theory of the impossibility of knowledge suggests a sort of agnosticism and its ethical implications may be compared with the ideal tranquility of the Stoics and Epicureans (who were more popular among Romans). This certainly contrasts with the Christian spiritual view that emphasizes belief in the supernatural. It is a philosophy that, at least for Petronius, lets him face death unequivocally with a sort of stoicism that provides a potent example in opposition to the Christian view. It also is an example of the breadth of beliefs shown by Sienkiewicz in his portrayal of the culture and character of the Roman world.

This contrast of philosophies underlies the novel and made it more interesting to me than the simple love story that it also presents. In Quo Vadis we are presented with an historical novel of depth that shows us the corruption and depravity of Nero's Rome while it presents the worlds of aesthetics and skepticism represented by Petronius and that of the young Christian sect whose believers include Peter and Paul, of biblical fame, and Ligia, the barbarian princess who becomes the focus of young Vicinius' amour. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the nineteenth century had several writers (Bulwer-Lytton, Kingsley, and Wallace) including Sienkiewicz who reacted to the prevalence of anti-christian views among the romantics (Shelley, et. al.). This is seen in the pronounced admiration for the poor Christians and the sensational nature of the culmination of the story involving the Neronic destruction of many of the Christians in terrifically brutal games. In spite of this Sienkiewicz through vivid detail creates a believable historical setting for his love story; and overcoming his biased portrayal of the Christians and the contrast with the irrationality and evil of Nero, he succeeds in telling a moving and thoughtful portrayal of Rome in the first century A.D.

I read Quo Vadis in the recent (1993) translation by W.S. Kuniczak and I would recommend this as the best translation available due to its readable style.

Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz. Trans. by W. S. Kuniczak. Macmillan Publishing, New York. 1993 (1895)


Murr said...

An illuminating review. Quo Vadis was one of the first 'grown-up' books I read as a teenager oh so many years ago. Your review has prompted me to read it again. Thank you.

James said...

Thanks for your kind words. It is indeed a readable book and one I had neglected until spurred to this reading by a friend. It is one of the best historical novels I have encountered.