The recent “terrorist” attacks at the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris, France, is a stark reminder of something that the Italian semiotician, philosopher, novelist and universal scholar Umberto Eco thematised in his first novel, The Name of the Rose (1998), namely, the supposedly negative, mutually exclusive relationship between what is taken to be absolute, unquestionable TRUTH, and laughter — good old, down-to-earth human laughter.

Those who have read this poststructuralist literary masterpiece — poststructuralist, because it shatters literary categories predicated on hard-and-fast literary genre-boundaries. It is at one and the same time a novel, a philosophical text, an introduction to semiotics and to the history of the Middle Ages, and it is disguised as a medieval whodunnit. It is the story of (and supposedly written by) Adso, a novice priest travelling with Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan monk with a reputation for erudition and intellectual prowess.

Brother William has been summoned to a Benedictine abbey situated high on top of a rocky mountainside by the abbot to investigate some suspicions of heresy involving Franciscans, but finds himself engaged in an attempt to solve a series of mysterious murders that plague the little Benedictine community.

From the outset one can tell that this riveting tale was written by a semiotician, about a semiotician-detective. Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the exemplary semiotician detective, who excels at decoding any crime-scene with regard to clues indexing the culprit’s modus operandi or identity, and Brother William fits into the same category. Early on, as they trudge up the mountain path, William and Adso hear a commotion in front of them, and to the latter’s astonishment, when they encounter people looking for a horse, William deftly reconstructs what happened there from “signs” left in the path and tells them where they would find the horse. It is with similar interpretive acumen that he deciphers the scenes of the murders that are committed in this supposed place of sanctity.


William tackles the unravelling of the mysterious deaths with his usual mixture of semiotic circumspection and faultless logical inference. In the course of successive events the reader is introduced to a number of important characters, and naturally one is receptive to any indication that one of them might be the murderer. The recent events at Charlie Hebdo in Paris resonate with a narrative thread of the novel that concerns the question, whether humour, laughter, and ridiculous or ludicrous images are compatible with “truth”, and the main champion of the claim that they are incompatible is the librarian, a monk named Jorge. Here is a passage that sets out the terrain of the debate. The monk Benno is answering a question by William (p. 90-91):

“ … Jorge was saying that it is not licit to use ridiculous images to decorate books that contain the truth. And Venantius observed that Aristotle himself had spoken of witticisms and plays on words as instruments better to reveal the truth, and hence laughter could not be such a bad thing if it could become a vehicle of the truth. Jorge said that, as far as he could recall, Aristotle had spoken of these things in his Poetics, when discussing metaphor. And these were in themselves two disturbing circumstances, first because the book of the Poetics, unknown to the Christian world for such a long time, which was perhaps by divine decree, had come to us through the infidel Moors … Jorge added that the second cause of uneasiness is that in the book the Stagirite [Aristotle] was speaking of poetry, which is infima doctrina and which exists on figments. And Venantius said that the psalms, too, are works of poetry and use metaphors; and Jorge became enraged because he said the psalms are works of divine inspiration and use metaphors to convey the truth, while the works of the pagan poets use metaphors to convey falsehood and for purposes of mere pleasure … ”

Here we already have all the components of a potentially deadly field of differences that morph into antagonisms that motivate someone to murder human beings in the novel, and similarly, motivated some individuals to massacre staff members at Charlie Hebdo. These words might be construed as Eco’s allusion to what is known either as ideology (a set of ideas, dogmatically adhered to, which dictates one’s actions) or as discourse (a systematic use of language in such a way that it is interwoven with one’s actions). In both cases — whether you think of it as ideology or as discourse — there is a conspicuous link with power, or empowerment: the ideas, or the language to which the ideologically or discursively interpellated person is committed, forms the basis of behaviour characterised by intransigence or rigidity, in short, by dogmatic behaviour. And once this has occurred, dogma starts masquerading as TRUTH.

Philosophy is in principle different from, and opposed to, such a stance, because it is constantly animated by the constitutive possibility of questioning the very things that one has hitherto accepted as true. This is what philosophers, artists and scientists have in common: any previously reached position has to be interrogated and, if a better answer can be formulated, the previous one must be discarded, even if this is done very differently in these three domains.

But once a person has committed themselves to a dogmatic stance as described above, he or she is blind to alternative answers — for them there is only ONE answer, and anyone who questions this is an enemy. Dogmatists are blind to the implications of the demonstrable fallibility and finitude of human beings, which philosophy, by contrast, is founded upon: we cannot know anything with absolute certainty, as Socrates taught. Even if such dogmatists, especially religious ones, admit that we are fallible — they call it being sinful — they believe that it does not matter, because they believe they “have found” the absolute TRUTH, and can therefore sit in judgment on all others who “have not found it”. And as the example of Jorge in The Name of the Rose demonstrates so frighteningly, according to them no one is allowed to show a sense of humour — something that is, in my humble opinion, one of the redeeming traits of our species. Instead, if you dare laugh at the TRUTH — in the form of drawing cartoons ridiculing hallowed personalities, for example — you should be punished, preferably terminally.

It is this stance of uncompromising condemnation of everyone who dares to make fun of certain dogmatically held beliefs which animates individuals like the ones who arrogated to themselves the right to render judgment on the employees at Charlie Hebdo, for their “sin” of daring to depict the objects of dogmatic belief in a satirical light. To such blindly dogmatic people (whether they are Hindu, Christian, capitalist, Jewish, communist, or Muslim) one should say: learn to laugh a bit at yourselves; life is very boring without laughter. Besides, you, as much as anyone else, are finite, fallible creatures, even if the truth you believe in is supposedly absolute. In other words, you can make mistakes, too. Get a life, learn to laugh.

The novel ends where William, having discovered (predictably) that Jorge is behind the series of murders, stands helplessly, watching the abbey burn after Jorge has set fire to the library. William tells Adso (p. 471):

“Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them … Jorge feared the second book of Aristotle because it perhaps really did teach how to distort the face of every truth, so that we would not become slaves of our ghosts. Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, TO MAKE TRUTH LAUGH, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.”

This book was first published in 1980 and the English translation in 1998, before 9/11, before Charlie Hebdo; it is obvious, however, that the last quotation applies to these events with uncanny accuracy. But not only to them; it applies to every instance where human beings forget their own limitations and believe blindly that they have stumbled on the absolute truth. Such people should learn to distinguish between what they regard as the absolute truth (which is always only partially knowable), on the one hand, and their (perhaps) absolute faith in it, on the other. Faith is not knowledge; it is a species of belief.

Image – People gather to take part in a unity rally “Marche Republicaine” on January 11, 2015 on the Republique square in Paris. (AFP)


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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