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Programs & Exhibitions

BANNED AND BURNT BOOKS: A Personal Essay

By Ross Scimeca, Head Librarian, Hoose Library of Philosophy

All three works displayed in Case Six were condemned by the Roman Catholic Church and placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Both Savonarola, an Italian Dominican priest, and Tyndale, an English theologian, tried to reform in Church practices. The former strongly denounced corruption in the Church and attacked its hierarchy. The latter argued that the only path to salvation was reading the Bible in one’s own native language without the intersession of priests. Neither the Catholic Church nor the Reformed Church accepted this radical stance. Savonarola was burned at the stake in Florence in 1498; Tyndale was hung and burned in Antwerp in 1535. Diderot’s Encyclopedie is the bibliographic masterpiece of the French Enlightenment. Most of its articles reflect the rationalist philosophy of that age and equate religious beliefs with superstition. Many articles attacked the Church directly, and the frontispiece by C. N. Cochin shows the goddess Truth being unveiled by Philosophy and Reason. In addition, Philosophy carries a bridle to put on Theology if necessary. To the left of Truth is Imagination honoring the goddess with a garland.

The books in Case Seven were prohibited for criticizing religions. Translated from the Latin, Erasmus’s title means In Praise of Folly. It is a virtuoso satire that begins by elaborating a doctrine of foolery. It gradually takes on a darker tone in a series of orations, as Folly praises self-deception and madness and then examines the pious but superstitious abuses of Catholic doctrine and corrupt practices in the Church. Erasmus, nevertheless, was a staunch Catholic throughout his life and wrote many treatises against Luther and the Reformation. Edward Gibbon’s monumental study of the decline and fall of Rome contains two chapters deeply critical of Christianity and how its “other-worldliness” was a major cause for the empire’s demise. The novels of both Mahfouz and Pullman use allegory to examine the fundamental beliefs of monotheism. The Egyptian writer Mahfouz was targeted by several Muslim fundamentalist groups for assassination, and there was an attempt on his life when he was 82 years old. The British fantasy writer Pullman, an atheist and secular humanist, has come under attack by fundamentalist Christians as a moral danger to children.

The books in Cases Eight and Nine were seen as radical challenges to religious or political beliefs. Emperor Shi Huang not only condemned Confucius’ The Analects as an obstacle to his attempt to unify China because of the questions it raised, but he rounded up 460 Confucian scholars and buried them alive. The De Inventoribus Rerum explores the origins of all human activities, including belief in the gods and the etymology of the word, “god.” Vergil also discusses the creation of the world from a naturalist, rather than Biblical perspective. Needless to say, his views landed the book on the Church’s Index. All of Bruno’s works were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1603. Not only did Bruno hold that Copernicus’ heliocentric system was correct, as Galileo would do afterwards, but he also believed in multiple, infinite universes. Although he was a Dominican priest, Bruno was declared a heretic for contradicting Church dogma and burned at the stake in Rome in 1600. It is interesting to note that the two great epistemological treatises of modern philosophy, the Meditations of Descartes and Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding were put on the Index for the same reason, starting their investigations by putting God’s existence in doubt. St. Augustine’s contention that one believes in order to have understanding is negated by these seminal works of rationalism and empiricism by Descartes and Locke. The Church was mindful too that Locke’s epistemology provided the philosophical foundation for Diderot’s Encyclopedie. Since its publication in 1859, Darwin’s Origin of Species has caused Christianity, particularly fundamentalist Protestantism, great consternation. The idea that all species, including man, evolved from lower forms of life, contradicts a literal interpretation of the Bible. Furthermore, according to Darwin, evolution is not teleological, but the result of accidents. This negates the very concept of divine providence. Hunter’s New Civic Biology, originally published in 1919, is the high school textbook with the section about evolution that provoked the infamous 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial.