Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Power of Education

The Count of Monte Cristo
by Alexandre Dumas

Alexandre Dumas was born on July 24, 1802, in Villers-Cotterêts, France. He adopted the last name "Dumas" from his grandmother, a former Haitian slave. Dumas was a prolific writer of essays, short stories and novels, as well as plays and travelogues. He achieved widespread success with the novels The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, initially published as serials. These novels made Dumas a household name in France and a popular author throughout much of Europe.

The Count of Monte Cristo has been one of my favorite novels since my early teens.  While it is a  romance novel, the qualities that appealed to me upon first reading, and to this day, are its historical detail set as it is in the midst of the Napoleonic era and the portrayal of justice and injustice.  Above all it is a tale of revenge and retribution that leads from historical detail to a world of magic,  fabulous treasure buried on a deserted island, of bandits and dark intrigue,  and of wizardry and splendors borrowed from the Arabian nights.  I have been enamored of superheroes and the fearless Monte Cristo was one of the first I encountered as he overcomes all the odds.  A master of disguise, he has the secret of all knowledge, immense physical strength, endless resourcefulness, and complete power to punish the wicked.  There are few heroes outside of comic books that rival The Count of Monte Cristo.  Writers as disparate as Swinburne and Thackeray were both enthralled reading the exploits of Dumas' famous count.  Above all Dumas was a great story teller and this is perhaps the main reason that he was popular throughout Europe in his day and his stories continue to appeal to readers and moviegoers (the recent, 2002, film version with Jim Caviezel as Edmond Dantes is splendid and captures the essence of the revenge story).

In addition to the above-listed qualities The Count of Monte Cristo is not just an exciting tale of adventure and revenge, not only an historical fiction. Edmond Dantes has been wrongfully accused, convicted, and imprisoned in the Chateau D'if, an infamous island prison.  His story is a psychological portrayal of obsession of the highest order and at the same time a paean to the value of education. The last item is the one I remember the most from my many readings of this magnificent tale of precipitous decline, betrayal and ultimate rise with vengeance at hand. It is the "plan of education" that Edmond Dantes completes under the tutelage of the elderly Abbe while imprisoned in the Chateau d'If that impresses me more than any other aspect of this tale. The Abbe tells him that "to learn is not to know; there are the learners and the learned. Memory makes the one, philosophy the other." Dantes enters upon a regimen of learning and swiftly begins to learn principles of mathematics and to understand several different languages. That he does use this knowledge in a way that belies the notion that he was gaining true wisdom seems to be the case, but the reader must traverse many hundreds of pages of exciting adventure before he can judge one way or the other. Whatever Dantes' eventual fate, the story that provides the exhilarating ride for the reader makes this a great book to read, and if your mind is like mine, to reread. 
The following brief section from the novel describes how the Abbe imparts his inestimable knowledge to Edmond.

"You must teach me a small part of what you know," said Dantes, "if only to prevent your growing weary of me. I can well believe that so learned a person as yourself would prefer absolute solitude to being tormented with the company of one as ignorant and uninformed as myself. If you will only agree to my request, I promise you never to mention another word about escaping." The abbe smiled. "Alas, my boy," said he, "human knowledge is confined within very narrow limits; and when I have taught you mathematics, physics, history, and the three or four modern languages with which I am acquainted, you will know as much as I do myself. Now, it will scarcely require two years for me to communicate to you the stock of learning I possess."

"Two years!" exclaimed Dantes; "do you really believe I can acquire all these things in so short a time?"
"Not their application, certainly, but their principles you may; to learn is not to know; there are the learners and the learned. Memory makes the one, philosophy the other."
"But cannot one learn philosophy?"
"Philosophy cannot be taught; it is the application of the sciences to truth; it is like the golden cloud in which the Messiah went up into heaven."
"Well, then," said Dantes, "What shall you teach me first? I am in a hurry to begin. I want to learn."
"Everything," said the abbe. And that very evening the prisoners sketched a plan of education, to be entered upon the following day. Dantes possessed a prodigious memory, combined with an astonishing quickness and readiness of conception; the mathematical turn of his mind rendered him apt at all kinds of calculation, while his naturally poetical feelings threw a light and pleasing veil over the dry reality of arithmetical computation, or the rigid severity of geometry. He already knew Italian, and had also picked up a little of the Romaic dialect during voyages to the East; and by the aid of these two languages he easily comprehended the construction of all the others, so that at the end of six months he began to speak Spanish, English, and German. In strict accordance with the promise made to the abbe, Dantes spoke no more of escape. Perhaps the delight his studies afforded him left no room for such thoughts; perhaps the recollection that he had pledged his word (on which his sense of honor was keen) kept him from referring in any way to the possibilities of flight. Days, even months, passed by unheeded in one rapid and instructive course. At the end of a year Dantes was a new man. Dantes observed, however, that Faria, in spite of the relief his society afforded, daily grew sadder; one thought seemed incessantly to harass and distract his mind. Sometimes he would fall into long reveries, sigh heavily and involuntarily, then suddenly rise, and, with folded arms, begin pacing the confined space of his dungeon. One day he stopped all at once, and exclaimed, "Ah, if there were no sentinel!" (from Chapter 17, "In the Abbes Cell",  of The Count of Monte Cristo)

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.  Oxford University Press, 1990 (1845).


Brian Joseph said...

This is a novel that I have somehow missed thus far. It is certainly one that I want to read.

The passage that you quoted is extraordinary. Indeed it says a lot a bout learning, knowledge and wisdom.

James said...


While this is a very long novel, more than one thousand pages in the Oxford paperback edition, it is worth reading both for its exciting story of betrayal and revenge and for passages like the one I quoted on history and other topics.
The excesses of the romantic novel were put to good use by Dumas as they were by his fellow French author, Victor Hugo.

Thomas at My Porch said...

I think Dumas is like Wilkie Collins in that he wrote gigantic books but they are so enjoyable that one relishes their length. I prefer the 3 Musketeers over The Count. Recently read The Black Tulip which had many of the same features of a Dumas but at about a fifth of the length.

James said...

Thanks for the apt comparison with Wilkie Collins. The Three Musketeers is great also.
However I'll have to check out The Black Tulip.