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Tuesday, March 12, 2013


All the fuss about the election now beginning in Vatican City for a new pope got me thinking about my treasured copy of the Index librorum prohibitorum, the official list, promulgated by the Church, of books the faithful are barred from reading.  Taking it down from the shelf, I find that my copy was issued in 1948, but by the time I acquired it, several more books had been added on an addendum sheet which came with it, including, among other things, the entire collected works of Jean-Paul Sartre. 

The Index is a curiously parochial work, in the common, not the religious, sense of that term.  Having been compiled by a collection of not very broadly educated Italian clerics, it is extremely heavy on the most obscure works of slightly deviant Italian language theology, but remarkably silent on even the most scandalous works in other languages.

For example, the only English work of fiction I could find in an admittedly quick scan of the 508 pages of the Index is Samuel Richardson's Pamela, widely [and incorrectly] considered the first English novel.  Apparently the Vatican apparatchiks took the elegantly recursive position that if one banned the first novel, all subsequent instances of the genre were banned by implication.  [The Index does forbid the faithful to read Defoe's The Political History of the Devil, but that is not a novel, so it doesn't fall under the Pamela proscription.]

Kant's Kritik der reinen vernunft is there, as indeed it should be.  I cannot believe that a serious student could survive a deep engagement with the Critique with his or her faith intact.

There is something naive and touching about a list of prohibited books put out in the middle of the twentieth century, when everything was already available in libraries and bookstores.  It makes one think of those pop psychology tests that consist of telling someone, "Now, whatever you do, don't think about elephants!"

My secret wish is that when next the Index is updated, In Defense of Anarchism gets included, but that is, I know, too much to hope for.


Michael said...

When I was writing my undergraduate thesis on Hobbes's Leviathan, I learned that the Church would sometimes refrain from putting a book on the index in order to avoid drawing undue attention to it. That might explain the absence of certain works that seem like they should belong.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I love it. But then it is revealing which books they seek to avoid calling attention to. It really is a medieval mindset, when books were extremely rare and precious. By the way, the Opera Omnia of Hobbes are on the Index. So beware!!

Michael Llenos said...

I think it was Saint Malachy that said that this will be the last pope before the Great Tribulation: this next pope's symbolic name is Peter the Roman.

According to Fatima saint St. Lucia Santos, a ressurected Napoleon will come to destroy the Vatican during this last popes reign. I'm talking about the great general and not N. Dynamite on Comedy Central.

But whatever does happen, it will be very interesting to watch who the next pope is and what will be the future theological stance the catholic church will take over the next few months.

By the way, does anyone know if Machiavelli's books: The Prince and the Discourses on Livy are in that banned index? I know they were banned during the 16th century, but it would be interesting to find out if they were banned by the church in the 20th century.

Michael Llenos said...

Sorry for the misdirection. Lucia Santos has not been canonized yet, atleast I think she hasn't.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Machiavelli is not on the Index, but Descartes and Hume are, along with Malebranche, and an unlikely book called Newtonisme pour les Dames. Also Maimonides [but not Averroes or Avicenna!] Also, all the novels of the Dumas, father and son. Also Spinoza's Tractatus, but not the Ethics! You can spend a very enjoyable several hours reading the Index.

Michael Llenos said...

Descartes on the index?! That guy is a philosophical saint! Well atleast The Ethics is not on the index. I downloaded it once before, and I think of it as a special theological classic on monotheism. Both Spinoza and Decartes are my heroes since they both accept the ontological argument of Anselm.

I like Machiavelli's Prince and Discourses on Livy so I am glad that they are not on the index.

mccorama said...

Given your prior comments on science, and the importance of the Critique of Pure Reason can you offer any guidance in approaching the material which deals with the problems of contemporary physics/cosmology.

Lee Smolin in 'The Life of the Cosmos': Kant claims to disprove Leibniz's principle of sufficient reason, which is the basis of his relational philosophy of space and time...Kant's writings on space and time claim to establish the logical necessity of both Newtonian mechanics and Euclidean geometry...I find Kant's presumption to define a domain of discourse in which final conclusions could be reached, which limits once and for all what we might perceive about the world highly implausible (even leaving out the fact that they led Kant to conclusions we now know are false).

Murfmensch said...

The index was abolished in the 1960's.

The closest thing to it is a requirement that Catholic academic theologians make a promise to their bishop to be devout. Nuns and Priests are subject to review in every respect as well.

I am very shocked to hear Descartes was ever on the list. My old school expected Descartes to play a role in Intro to Phil classes.

Catholic schools in general like philosophy more than schools that are not Catholic. Only a couple of schools have suspended the claim to academic freedom- (CUA and Ave Maria come to mind.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Dear me. Maybe my copy will become a collector's item. :)

Phersv said...

Oddly, they never put Marx or Darwin on the list.

But Kepler, Rabelais or Blaise Pascal were forbidden.

Murfmensch said...

There must be, or ought to be, a good book on the history of the index.

JWS02459 said...

I've fantasized from time to time about offering, as a sort of antidote to the "Great Books" curricula that still turn up at certain universities, a course on "Bad Books" or "Wicked Books" (since I teach in Boston, the latter designation has a certain ambiguity that I like). The idea would be to assemble a sort of counter-curriculum of all the books that, over the ages, have troubled less adventurous readers and gotten their authors in trouble (e.g., Mandeville's Fable of the Bees, Diderot's Indiscreet Jewels, Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, etc.). I took the preliminary step to tracking down a copy of the Index, thinking that I could use it as a rough draft of the syllabus. But it turned out to have a significant overlap with the items that were already on the "Great Books" courses.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

JWS02459 [I infer you live in Newton], that is a spectacular idea for a blog post. Would you like to contribute a guest post? Maybe start us off, and let others propose additional titles.