Terrible Things for the Best of Reasons

Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

In “An Instance of the Fingerpost”--a novel whose title referred to the rarity of unambiguous evidence--Iain Pears described a murder case in 17th century England through the eyes of several characters. All their accounts were partly true, and all were misleading. In “The Dream of Scipio,” Pears is equally ambitious: He views a perennial problem--What should civilized people do when civilization collapses?--through the eyes of residents of southern France in three widely spaced historical eras.

Manlius Hippomanes, a landowner and philosopher in the 5th century, watches as barbarians dismantle the last of Roman Gaul. Olivier de Noyen, a poet at the papal court in Avignon, discovers Manlius’ legacy--a manuscript called “The Dream of Scipio”--just before the Black Death of 1347-50 kills a third of Europe’s population. Julien Barneuve, a scholar who has read both Manlius and Olivier, finds himself working as a censor for the Vichy government after the Nazis conquer France in 1940.

“Power without wisdom is tyranny; wisdom without power is pointless,” says Sophia, a Greek woman who has taught Manlius neo-Platonist philosophy and who is his platonic lover. Under her prodding, he abandons a life of contemplation for one of action. Manlius perceives that the only power left in the Provence of his time is Christianity. So he feigns conversion and is made a bishop, surrendering the region to the half-tame Burgundians to avoid destruction by the Goths.


The breadth and clarity of Manlius’ vision astounds Julien a millennium and a half later. He doesn’t realize at first that “The Dream of Scipio”--its title borrowed from a famous work by Cicero--is Manlius’ attempt to justify the evils he commits in the name of preventing greater evils. Manlius kills his adopted son, has his best friend murdered and, to cement his popularity, “converts” the Jews of his native city, Vaison, by the sword. Julien, too, is reluctantly pulled from his books to public life. He collaborates with Vichy to moderate the demands of a former friend who heads the French provincial administration (and is trying in turn to moderate the demands of the Germans). He congratulates himself on his deftness until his lover, Julia, a painter and a Jew, is arrested in 1943 and sent to the death camps.

He realizes then that the logic Manlius used to persecute the Jews has lurked like a poison in the bloodstream of Western civilization ever since. By Olivier’s time, Manlius had been canonized as a saint. The conversion of the Jews is ranked as his greatest accomplishment. Sophia, too, is a saint--credited, ironically, with converting Manlius to Christianity, when in fact she disdained that religion and was appalled by his proto-Machiavellian methods.

Unlike Manlius and Julien, Olivier isn’t a rationalist. He doesn’t identify himself with civilization or attempt to shape history. He is narrow, passionate, romantic. He is said to have fallen in love with a countess and killed her when she tried to flee the plague rather than stay near him. Olivier was then horribly punished by her husband. Julien debunks this story, finding that Olivier loved another woman--a Jew--and that he had something to do with Pope Clement VI’s remarkable proclamation that the Jews, instead of being scapegoats for the plague, should be protected.

Pears--working in the shadow of Albert Camus’ “The Plague,” which used disease as a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France--links the three narratives with his own omniscient voice. He is lucid and informative but compared with Camus, a little bloodless. His characters all sound alike. His intellectual framework--though audacious and sophisticated and admirably suited for an essay--is confining for fiction.

“The Dream of Scipio” shows us little of Nazi atrocities or of the terrors with which the Goths threaten Manlius’ world. Only the Black Death is vivid. The moral problem that Pears poses is intractable: Neither faith nor reason is an unerring guide. But he leads us to view Olivier’s response, uncalculating and human, as the best.

Perhaps Pears wouldn’t go so far as to say, with E.M. Forster, that “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” But it’s safe to infer that he wouldn’t rush, after Sept. 11, to sacrifice civil liberties to the war on terrorism. And he has Julien conclude: “It is the civilized who are the truly barbaric, and the Germans are merely the supreme expression of it .... We have done terrible things, for the best of reasons, and that makes it worse.”