Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

The Function of Skepticism in Part I of Don Quijote

Academic journal article Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

The Function of Skepticism in Part I of Don Quijote

Article excerpt

THE AIM OF THIS essay is to clarify one of the functions of skepticism in Part I of Don Quijote. More specifically, even though there are many studies about the presence of skepticism in the writings of Cervantes, (1) there is one aspect of that philosophy that has not received all the attention it deserves: the way in which it gives thematic continuity and structure to the novel. As we shall see, Cervantes took deliberate advantage of skeptical philosophy to create a contrast between the story of Don Quijote and the character "Don Quijote." On the one hand, Don Quijote's dogmatism drives him from one adventure to the next, which gives continuity to the narration, and on the other, the story of Don Quijote is presented as being un-dogmatic. This structural contrast works best in a culture where skeptical doctrine is well-known and influential, which is the case of Europe when the book was written. (2)

Skepticism rejects authority as a valid mechanism to obtain truth. Argumentation and direct observation ought to be used instead. The reason why authority is rejected in favor of argumentation and observation is because the former represents the most anti-skeptical attitude one can take: dogmatism (believing that something is true only because an authority says that it is true). (3) If we keep this in mind, then the structural contrast between the skeptical story and Don Quijote's dogmatic character can be appreciated more easily.


The prologue contains an explanation of the problem facing the author: he is unsure what the "antiguo legislador que llaman vulgo" (13) will say about him and his book because of several reasons: the book has no erudition; it does not quote from Aristotle nor Plato; it does not appeal to Aquinas nor the holy scripture; it does not have a list of authors that ends with Xenofonte, or Zolio or Zerxius (13); and it does not have at the beginning poetry written by important people such as "duques, marqueses, condes, obispos, damas o poetas celeberrimos" (14). In short, the author is worried about the reception of the book by the "vulgo" because it lacks authority. Then we are told the solution. A friend who is unknown (and therefore lacks authority) proposes the following: invent the sonnets and claim that they were written by important people (for example, "Preste Juan" (15)); use the quotes that you already know and are easy to remember and place them strategically throughout the book, making sure that they have authority ("Horacio" "Escritura Divina; "Caton" (15-16)); with respect to the annotations, include them using the same strategy, citing even more authorities such as "Ovidio ... Homero ... Virgilio ... Julio Cesar ... Plutarco ... Leon Hebreo" (17); with respect to the list of authors, take it from another book and put it at the end of the book so that it gives "de improviso autoridad al libro" (18).

In addition to the solution, the friend explains why the book needs no authority: "este vuestro libro no tiene necesidad de ninguna cosa de aquellas que vos decis que le falta, porque todo el es una invectiva contra los libros de caballerias, de quien nunca se acordo Aristoteles, ni dijo nada San Basilio, ni alcanzo Ciceron" (18).

Finally, the reason stating why the work was written contains an explicit reference against authority: "esta vuestra escritura no mira a mas que a deshacer la autoridad y cabida que en el mundo y en el vulgo tienen los libros de caballerias, ..." (18). (4)

The constant undermining of and preoccupation with authority continues in Chapter Nine. In that chapter we learn that we do not know when the story of Don Quijote was written because it could be old or not. It could be ancient because most of it was missing, and this unfortunate event is explained using time, who is "devorador y consumidor de todas las cosas" (100), but it could also be modern because a partial manuscript was found next to texts that were written recently, such as for example "Desengano de cellos y Ninfas y Pastores de Henares" (101). …

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