As part of my final for Classic Literature, I was tasked with composing a dialogue amongst five figures of the Renaissance period debating the highest virtue. This rather lamentable farce is the result.
* * * *
Extract Discovered in the Papers of the Late Miguel de Cervantes
The scene: the Berntsen Library, University of Northwestern—St. Paul. If there is an explanation for this anachronism, the papers do not give it.
The players: Don Quixote de La Mancha, an addled knight; Dante Aligheri, a poet and receiver of divine visions; Niccolo Machiavelli, a scoundrel; Francesco Petrarca, a poet of the starry-eyed persuasion; and Michel de Montaigne, a loghorreic essayist.
The dialogue: the highest virtue, its existence, & c.
All enter. Quixote trips on his own feet and collapses.
DQ: Good sir, would you be so kind as to help a noble warrior to his feet?
NM: (disparagingly) The noble warrior should regain his own feet, or he is not fit to go to war.
DA: You villain, do you not know there is a circle of hell reserved for those who commit violence against their neighbors?
NM: I commit no violence, and he is not my neighbor.
DA: Excuses! A sin of omission is still worthy of being boiled in deep, deep blood, as broad flakes of fire shower steadily down upon you.
NM: Aren’t you a cheery fellow.
DQ: Perhaps you, then, court poet, would help a poor knight to resume his quest—
DA: (ignoring him entirely) Cheer! I care not for cheer. Love, love of God, is the only virtue which means anything.
FP: (shrieks and clutches at his chest) Love! Love! O love, tormentor of my soul! Love, highest virtue of all existence, and yet the highest pain!
DQ: I say, he’s not quite right in the head, is he?
DA: You besotted idiot, romantic love is nothing compared to love for the Creator of all the world.
DQ: But dear court poet, what about your Lady Beatrice?
DA: Silence, addlepate.
DQ: Of course, she is nothing next to my Lady Dulcinea, but then—
NM: You fools make me laugh. Has love ever conquered a frontier, unified a nation, shifted the power of one dynasty to another? If love is the highest virtue, it has done a pretty poor job of maintaining its position.
FP: O heartless, soulless wretch! O lizard, o fish, o creature of reptilian mien! You commit blasphemy against my beloved, my Laura, the only pure creature on the face of this earth, the power of amorous hope that sustains me in my bitter life.
DQ: There I must object. My Lady Dulcinea—
DA: And what is the highest virtue, then, you devilspawn?
NM: Now, now. If you’re going to call names I just won’t play.
DQ: If I may speak, my saucy tactician—
NM: You may not.
DQ: It seems clear to me that all three of you miss the mark. It is clear that valor is the highest of the virtues by a goodly margin. For well I know the meaning of valor: namely, a virtue that lies between the two extremes of cowardice on the one hand and temerity on the other. If I had to choose one image that best sums up the best of mankind, it would be the knight-errant who, traversing deserts and solitudes, crossroads, forests, and mountains, goes seeking dangerous adventures only for the purpose of eternal glory. It is valor that gives us the courage to do the impossible, to dream the unthinkable. It is valor that gives me the courage to rescue maidens from lions or wizards, that allows me without a second thought to tilt at the giants who would otherwise overwhelm the countryside of Spain. What I would be without my valor, I do not like to think.
NM: It seems to me you would be standing upright.
DQ: Let me be upright in heart rather than in stance.
DA: My clumsy friend, you have it all backwards. It is not our glory but God’s that must win the day. The Love that moves the sun and other stars must by necessity be that which draws the bulk of our adoration, else how can we call ourselves moral creatures? And after all, Satan himself has valor—one must be courageous to face the prospect of being buried with only half his chest above the ice, the frozen water burning all the same.
DQ: This Satan would make a fine knight.
DA: O blasphemer, get thee hence!
(DA kicks DQ in his armored ribs; DA grabs his foot and hops about, bellowing, while DQ moans and attempts to shift himself to a more comfortable position)
NM: For shame, my friend. Do you not know there is a circle of hell reserved for those who commit violence against their neighbors?
(DA makes a highly worldly gesture)
FP: Such is the unhappy fate of one whose heart is cold.
DQ: Precisely, my afflicted friend! One’s heart must burn with valor if he is to truly live a virtuous life. I say, would you mind giving me a hand—
FP: No, no, no, simpleton! I spit on your valor, I give not a fig for your valor.
DQ: Why should I want a fig?
FP: My Laura’s eyes are like figs, you know. Dry and shriveled and capable of producing a highly edible paste—(frowns)—that simile doesn’t work, does it?
DA: (still clutching at his injured foot) It certainly doesn’t scan, either. Amateur.
FP: It isn’t my fault you wouldn’t recognize good art if it were to drag you through hell.
DA: (affronted) If that is an insinuation against the great Virgil—
DQ: Lady Virgil? I thought it was Lady Beatrice.
FP: Virgil was a heartless bastard. To force Aeneas to leave Dido a suicide, all for the dream of some distant empire which fell to barbarians anyway! How could he have sailed, blown by winds of grief from the course he ought to steer? I could never use my Laura so, even if I were offered a thousand empires. Had Aeneas remained with Dido, perhaps no epic would have been written about him, but he truly would have seen what a virtue love is.
NM: (chortles) I was prepared to simply sit back and observe, as does our dear Montaigne, but this is really too much. Aeneas give up Rome for a woman! The mind boggles.
DA: Perhaps it’s the size of the mind in question that’s the cause.
NM: Flattery will get you nowhere, my dear Dante.
DA: You still have not answered my challenge, heathen. What is the greatest virtue, then, if not love of God?
FP: Or love of one’s beloved?
DQ: (muffled, as in endeavoring to rise he has fallen on his face) Really, I still feel that valor—
FP: No one asked your opinion, Spaniard.
NM: You are all equally correct, which is to say you are all entirely wrong. You operate from the wrong premises. There is no virtue.
(DA and FP gasp, horrified; DQ spasms, his armor rattling)
DA: Good knight, slay this demonspawn.
DQ: Oh dear, my sword seems to have fallen out of reach. Perhaps if you could help me to my feet—
NM: The good Don was almost correct in one thing, at least. I don’t know how good a knight Satan would make, but he’d be a first-rate prince.
DA: A prince of darkness, yes! A prince of villainy, of damnation, of—
NM: Virtue exists insofar as others around the prince believe it to exist. It is necessary that he be prudent enough to understand how to avoid getting a bad name because he is given to those vices that will deprive him of his position, of course, because to be deprived of rule is to fail; but were the virtues he held believed to be vices and the vices believed to be virtues, he would have to reorient his apparent moral compass lest it interfere with his image. Moreover, he should not be troubled if he gets a bad name because of vices without which it will be difficult for him to preserve his position. For the survival of the nation, unity must be achieved; I don’t much care how it is achieved.
DQ: Villain, I would smite you across the head if I had the use of my legs!
NM: Imagine yourself a new pair, why don’t you. Or blast me from across the room with your valor.
DA: Even for you, scoundrel, this is absurd. How is the populace to be kept under control if there is no virtue to guide them?
FP: How should I live without the virtue of my love to sustain me?
DQ: How should I win glory without virtuous deeds to perform?
NM: Hard to worship your beloved God if there are no churches being built for him due to a lack of government donations. Hard to write poetry about your beloved Laura if you both are part of separate, squabbling sub-provinces. Hard to be a knight if you have no lord for whom to fight. Hard to be an essayist (he inclines his head to MM) if . . . well, on second thought, Montaigne, I don’t believe that any circumstances could force you to put down your pen.
FP: Well, here’s a fellow we haven’t asked yet! And it’s said the French are beginning to do truly great things with deduction and science. Surely he’ll know!
DA: I do not think that is such a good idea.
FP: (to MM) My good man, which of us is correct? What is the virtue that rests above all others—(glares at NM)—assuming, of course, that virtue exists in the first place?
MM: I thought you’d never ask.
It seems to me that all of you fellows’ philosophies, each admirable in its own way, operate from the wrong premises. The question is not “What is the chief virtue?” but “What way of life is most conducive to virtue?”
FP: That’s really venturing outside the scope—
MM: (overriding) It is no mistake, good Dante, that your own Virgil wrote: “These manners nature first ordained.” If we would only follow the example of the cannibals in the New World, our society would instantly revert to a primitive stage in which the absolute best in us is allowed to flourish. You, good Machiavelli, claim that virtue must subordinate itself for the good of unity, of order, so that society may be preserved, churches raised, love experienced, knights provided for, etc. I counter that you, along with our poets here, could not imagine a naturalness so pure and simple as we see by experience; nor could you believe that our society could be maintained with so little artifice and human solder.
NM: You’re right, I cannot.
MM: (as if NM has not spoken) It is simply that the windows of your perception are too small! If we were to strip ourselves naked—
DA: Horrors! Damnation!
MM: (see previous descriptions) —and transplant ourselves to the jungles of the New World, how much better off we would be! Never would we grow sick and die, or find ourselves bent in old age. Resources would be plentiful, and with no industry there would be no need to squabble over such things as money or property or women.
In fact, this reminds me of a coach I once rode through the streets of Paris, an experience which left me profoundly sickened. If only I’d not had the opportunity to travel on a coach, I never would have been sick! And if I had not been sick and home abed, who knows what multitude of good deeds I could have performed!
DA: I do not see how this is particularly relevant—
FP: (simultaneously) I would fight for my Laura regardless of whether or not she were considered property—
MM: (overriding) I must emphasize to you all the importance of this. Take boating, for example . . .
Lights fade down over the course of several seconds as MM continues speaking.
Several hours later, the lights fades back in, dimmer. Night has fallen outside the library. DA, NM, and FP have slipped away in pursuit of a more taciturn moderator. MM has not noticed. DQ twitches every so often; he has somehow become trapped beneath a chair. His entangled position has not improved.
MM: . . . and this incident with the squirrels clearly demonstrates the essential frailty of the human condition! It is a perfectly logical progression. Wouldn’t you say so, Machiavelli?
MM: . . . Machiavelli?
MM: Alas, it seems I have worked myself into a trance and they have vanished. A pity; Francesco in particular would have appreciated my metaphor about the viaduct and the blood libel, I think. (sighs) Well, I must be getting home.
DQ: (faintly) Excuse me, my good man . . .
MM: Good heavens! Is this to say you’ve been lying here all this time?
DQ: Indeed, and I’m not at all sure what will become of my Lady Dulcinea without my lance to protect her from the giants. Or Sancho, for that matter.
MM: My dear fellow, I completely sympathize. This situation reminds me of the meat-vendor who I once encountered while walking down the street on a Tuesday evening . . .
DQ: (to himself, as MM continues to speak) And just think. The entire time the highest virtue was that of cannibalism, and now I’ve no one to tell. I suppose I shall have to start eating my enemies once I’ve dispatched them, in order for my valor to increase. (considering) A giant should make enough to feed the entire castle. I shall have to tell Sancho at once.
(he attempts to rise, groaning, and collapses once more)
DQ: Essayist? Essayist?
Fade to black.