Cyrano de Bergerac: Boldest Atheist Ever!

Thanks for asking me to speak again. I gave a talk here just a couple of months ago on Omar Khayyam. Some time back I gave a talk featuring the great Greek materialist philosopher Democritus. I spoke too on Spinoza, also a materialist philosopher, as I hope I demonstrated. In fact, I gave a talk on the history of materialism, in which I discussed Epicurus, Lucretius, Diderot, Shelley, T.H. Huxley, Richard Dawkins, Isaac Asimov, and yes, Darwin, Marx, Einstein, and many other philosophical and scientific materialists.

All great atheists whether they used that term or not are materialists, that is to say philosophers concerned with the natural world and not the supernatural! After speaking here about so many eminent freethinkers – so many human beings of genius - I want to speak today about... – a dummy!

Seriously, we all know the story of the puppet Pinocchio - how his nose grows and grows every time he tells a lie. I want to tell the story today of someone else whose nose grows and grows. No, not a wooden puppet, but a real man of flesh and blood. I am speaking of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Cyrano was not a fictional character, though apparently the whole world thinks he is. June and I recently went off on a seven-day trip to Ashland. Whenever we mentioned Cyrano de Bergerac – yes, to owners of book stores and even librarians – they were all surprised to hear that a real live human being called Cyrano de Bergerac walked this earth. They thought he was only a make-believe creature in a play.

Or maybe a cartoon character in the comics! Look at this cover of Classics Illustrated. Look at Cyrano’s nose. Isn’t he another Pinocchio? Well, Cyrano’s nose did grow and grow, but not when he told a lie – only when others fibbed about him.

Who is fibbing about him, and why and how? Well, I want to show you today that the Cyrano de Bergerac most of us know is far, far from the historical man who lived in France in the 17th Century.

The Cyrano we know was a great sword fighter, but a grotesque man with a nose so large it “arrived at a place fifteen minutes before he did.” Cyrano was in love with his cousin, the lovely Roxanne. But he felt he was so ugly he was afraid to declare his love. Oh, yes! He was a poet and he wrote wonderful love letters to the woman he adored. But he wrote those letters not for himself – not from himself! He gave the letters to his friend Christian, a very handsome but stupid man, who passed them off as his own.

Cyrano the hopeless romantic: this is the Cyrano we know from the play by Edmond Rostand. We’ll talk more about this play – in fact, we’ll actually see this play just four days from now in a film for which Jose Ferrer won an Academy Award as best actor. And I hope many of you saw the opera “Cyrano de Bergerac” ten days ago in Peacock Hall. How many did see it?

Well, it is a lovely opera, but it is based almost word for word on Rostand’s play, and so you did not see the real Cyrano. Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is a tremendous character, yet the actual Cyrano was a million times more impressive. The real Cyrano was one of us, an atheist - an ardent atheist, the greatest atheist of his time. He was a fervent freethinker, a passionate materialist.

And he was all this during a horribly repressive age, a brutal time. It was damn dangerous to carry on the way Cyrano did – in Spain, in Italy, and yes, even in France.

Why, in France in 1546 the Catholics arrested Etienne Dolet for heresy and atheism; they burned him at the stake. In 1600 - only nineteen years before Cyrano was born - the great Italian lover of the infinite material universe, Giordano Bruno - writer, astronomer, philosopher and poet - was strapped to a stake by the Catholic Inquisition, a gag tied to his tongue, and a flaming torch touched to his body.

And much closer to home (in Toulouse, France), almost on the day Cyrano came into the world in Paris, a priest, Lucilio Vanini, was killed by the Catholic church for heresy and atheism. He had denied the immortality of the soul, the creation of the world out of nothing, and the divinity of Jesus. The sentence? His tongue was to be cut out, and he was to be strangled and then burned.

Poet and atheist Teophile de Viau was persecuted as an immoral libertine and sentenced in 1623 to death at the stake. He received a reprieve but was imprisoned miserably for two years, then banished for life. He died in Paris when Cyrano was a schoolboy of seven.

Cyrano de Bergerac was fourteen years old when Galileo was summoned before the Inquisition in Rome. For defending the ‘realist’ Copernican system that the earth was not, as the Church insisted, the center of the universe but that the planets revolved around the sun, Galileo was found guilty of heresy, forced to publicly renounce his beliefs, and sentenced to life imprisonment. His books were banned. When he became blind in 1638, the pope refused him a visit to Florence to see doctors. He died - still under house arrest - four years after the onset of blindness.

About this time Cyrano de Bergerac came under the influence of Pierre Gassendi, the skeptical philosopher who taught that our knowledge of the world comes through our senses. He professed the atomic theory of Epicurus, and Gassendi is thought to be the father of modern materialism.

But Gassendi was also a priest, and sought to reconcile this mechanism with God, creation, and immortality. Cyrano boldly leapt beyond his teacher and cast off all religious considerations whatsoever. Cyrano was “the initiator of the rationalistic philosophical spirit, having as its object the destruction of Christianity.” This was Cyrano according to his countryman Lachevre.

No faith did Cyrano have in the creeds and doctrines of religion: he made a mockery of miracles. He believed only in reason and common sense. De Bergerac relentlessly attacked in his books both priest and pope. He absolutely denied the supernatural, the divine creation of the universe, the immortality of the soul, and resurrection. He questioned, challenged, and denied the existence of a god. “God is unnecessary in Cyrano’s world because nature creates itself,” writes Erica Harth in her thorough discussion of de Bergerac’s philosophy, “Cyrano de Bergerac and the Polemics of Modernity” (Columbia University Press, 1970). 

Cyrano adhered to the atomic materialism of Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius and Gassendi. He accepted and defended the model of Copernicus. He supported Bruno and Galileo.

Cyrano de Bergerac was a writer, a popular poet. One Web page cites ten of his works. He composed a drama, The Death of Agrippina. The great playwrights Corneille and Molière thought this tragedy good enough that they borrowed scenes from Cyrano.

His most significant works were Voyage to the Moon and Sun in two volumes. These novels portrayed fantastic voyages to outer space, and they are now counted among the world’s earliest works of science fiction. Arhur C. Clarke said Cyrano must be credited for first applying the rocket to space travel.

In his “Comic History of the States and Empires of the Moon,” Cyrano – ‘from outer space’ – ‘observed’ the earth move around the sun and declared ours to be only one of an infinite number of worlds in an infinite universe.

Why shouldn’t Cyrano travel to the moon to prove it had mountains and valleys like the earth? Why not journey to the sun itself and behold the earth in orbit? Cyrano de Bergerac saw himself as a second Prometheus. “And why not?” he asked. “After all, Prometheus once went off to Heaven to steal fire.”

But these novels were much more than science fiction. They were satirical novels, making fun of the foolish teachings of the church, and the tyranical authority of the state. In Voyage dans la Lune, for example, Cyrano imagines that he has met moon dwellers. For money they use poetry: one could pay for a meal with a sonnet. When these moon dwellers part they say not “God be with you,” but “Remember to live free!”

Yes, Cyrano had a large nose – so what? Look at this engraving. It looks like a fine Roman nose, not much more - a Jewish nose maybe? No big deal! I see noses right here before me in this room as big as Cyrano’s. His was not a grotesque nose such as in this caricature. Cyrano was proud of his nose. A big nose perhaps indicates a big, a big... – well, let’s hear what Cyrano says:

 

        ’Tis enormous! I am proud possessing such an appendice.

        ’Tis well known, a big nose is indicative

        Of a soul affable, and kind, and courteous,

        Liberal, brave, just like myself, and such

        As you can never dare to dream yourself.

 

There were smaller noses on earth at the time, other great men with little cute noses. But none had a heart so great – a mind as magnificent as Cyrano’s. Sir Thomas More, Campanella, Bacon, and Cyrano’s teacher Gassendi, all wrote on matters similar to Cyrano’s. But all made concessions to church, god, and Christianity. Not Cyrano! “He took,” French writer Busson declared, “the most irreligious stand for his time.” Of all his contemporaries, Cyrano assumed the most defiant stance against miracles, religious faith, superstition, the occult, and the existence of gods.

Take witches, for example: in Cyrano’s time belief in witches and in the Devil was as fundamental to Catholic orthodoxy as belief in god. To reject the witch hunt was tantamount to deny God. Cyrano did reject it! Even scientific thinkers such as Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes and Johannes Kepler accepted witchcraft. Cyrano rejected it!

“No, I do not remotely believe in witches,” Cyrano declared, “even though many great persons have not been of my opinion. I defer to no one’s authority unless accompanied by reason. Neither the name of Aristotle, more learned than me, nor that of Plato, nor that of Socrates persuade me one jot if my judgement is not convinced by the reason of what they say. Reason alone is my queen.”

Cyrano’s insistence on reason was rare in his time, and he would have been at home in the Enlightenment that did not come until a century after his death. Erica Harth concludes that “Cyrano stands apart from the most enlightened of his contemporaries.”

And he was peerless in his boldness. Cyrano’s dueling skills were unparalleled, and his wit was every bit as sharp as his sword. An “audacious freethinker” with a “daring temper,” he was thought by some - even Voltaire - to be a madman. Cyrano took the field in an unyielding onslaught on convention and authority. And we have seen already - just a glimpse – what authority looked like in Cyrano’s time: it burned so-called heretics at the stake – tore out their tongues! In the midst of that religious viciousness, Cyrano de Bergerac was known as “The Intrepid” – daring, fearless, and heroic! Do we wonder now why he was involved in so many swordfights? In fact, Cyrano was assassinated! Rostand got that right, anyway.

But in almost everything else Rostand’s play is sheer invention.

Oh, yes - Paris in 1897 waxed ecstatic at the premiere of the play “Cyrano de Bergerac.” “The greatest dramatic poem of the last fifty years!” wrote one reviewer. “The greatest play ever written!” declared another. (I wonder if someone sober didn’t pull this reviewer’s sleeve suggesting that a country bumpkin from the small market town of Stratford on the Avon in England might perhaps, possibly have a claim to the greatest play ever written). 

Well, be that as it may, even before the final curtain fell on the play’s opening night, the twenty-nine-year-old Edmond Rostand was awarded membership in the French Legion of Honor. “At two o’clock in the morning the lights were still blazing in the theater; the auditorium was still packed to capacity.” Strangers kissed each other in the streets, and all of Paris went wild.

Yes, Rostand’s play is fabulous - full of fantasy and humor, whimsy and passion. It is a romantic drama, gloriously sentimental - a most poignant love story. It is touching and tender, melancholy, “profoundly and universally human.”

And yes, Cyrano’s fervid love of freedom does shine through; his scorn for authority - his contempt - blaze and burn in glorious rhyme.

Cyrano in Rostand’s play is a man of honor and love - unselfish, magnanimous, greathearted, and with beauty of soul. Yet for all this his name has for over a century been a symbol for ugliness – physical ugliness. 

This was Rostand’s artistic design. His Cyrano swings from tender lover to hot tempered swordsman, from loyal friend to braggart and buffoon. Such contrasts are the essence of art, and Rostand gives us the heartbreak of a terrible contrast: a man with a beautiful soul behind an ugly face.

But all commentators concur that the character created by Edmond Rostand has little in common with Cyrano de Bergerac the man. Rostand’s creation is “a deliberate literary extravagance,” in the phrase of Brooks Atkinson. He wrote (in the New York Times of November 13, 1953) that while Rostand’s is “one of the most gorgeous theatrical plays ever written” it is “all theater. Not a word of truth is spoken all evening.” Did you hear that? “Not a word of truth is spoken all evening.”

And so for over one hundred years since the Rostand play the world knows only a disfigured truth, a misshapen Cyrano. You will not see the real Cyrano de Bergerac in the Jose Ferrer movie Monday night.

First of all, his nose was not that large. Every artist is a great exaggerator, and Rostand took artistic license to great lengths indeed! Why, the smallest thing about this great man was his nose! His heart was a million times larger than his nose, and his mind... – why, his mind was infinite!

Secondly, Cyrano did not, we learn from Wikipedia and other sources, did not write those letters. “The play’s plotline involving Roxanne and Christian is almost entirely fictional - the real Cyrano did not write the Baron’s love letters for him.”

Wow! That strikes at the very heart of Rostand’s play. Perhaps I should say no more for fear of destroying illusions. But one thing more I must say, and this will be – hold on to your hat! - unbelievable – hilarious! Cyrano de Bergerac was gay! Far from mooning over his cousin Roxanne, he had little interest in women. He had passionate homosexual relationships with at least two other men. And he would not give an inch to those who held his homosexuality to be wrong. His brave and independent thinking was years ahead of its time. It meant that his life was in constant danger. All this according to a new book by Ishbel Addyman: a fantastic book! If you at all want to know anything about the real Cyrano de Bergerac please come up and look at this book. Order a copy for yourself.

Yes, here are some things we read in this book, in others like it, and on the World Wide Web: “Historians have pointed out that Rostand’s portrayal of the hero was not truthful.”

“Almost everything most of us think we know about Cyrano de Bergerac was made up by the nineteenth-century French dramatist Edmond Rostand.”

“The dramatist exaggerated the ugliness by giving his character a grotesque nose, and invented a plot in which Cyrano would woo the woman he loved on behalf of another.”

Ah well, I hope you will all come to see the movie anyway. Bring a ton of tissues, for you will cry like crazy. Yes, when Roxanne realizes that it was Cyrano all along who wrote those exquisite love letters... – why it breaks one’s heart.

And we will cry too. Those of us in the audience Monday who are freethinkers, who are members of this Atheist Club, who have heard my talk here today - yes, you and I will shed tears for Rostand’s romantic hero; we will weep with everyone else in the theater.

But as atheists we will cry and then cry yet again. Our hearts will break a second time. We will weep over an inconsolable loss, as if a dear brother has been murdered. For that, in fact, is what happened. A great atheist hero has been taken from us. Atheism itself in all its grandeur has been shrouded in darkness, smothered, and hidden from the eyes of the world – yes, once again.

Edmond Rostand, born to a wealthy family, was a liberal man in some respects; he supported Dreyfus, after all. That made him many enemies on the political right.

But Edmond Rostand was not the man to do justice to the giant Cyrano de Bergerac. It would take no less than another Cyrano to write a play about Cyrano. Rostand was not an atheist, much less a materialist. Did Rostand even understand what materialism in philosophy is? Very few of us understand it today. Read the people I mentioned at the top of this talk. Read the beautiful epic poem of Lucretius!

No, Rostand did not do justice to the philosophy of Cyrano de Bergerac. Rostand approached a brilliant Temple of Truth in which sits Cyrano de Bergerac. Rostand stuck his elegant and refined hands inside Cyrano’s rock-solid temple of magnificent materialist philosophy, and what he hauled out of it - poignant and gorgeous as it may be - is still a caricature, a dummy, a wooden puppet with a long nose.

Rostand committed the ultimate offense against Cyrano de Bergerac; he put in Cyrano’s mouth words he would not utter even on pain of death. The real Cyrano would burn at the stake - he would suffer his tongue to be torn out of his mouth before he would pronounce the words Rostand put in his mouth. Cyrano de Bergerac was a man of “unshakable atheism which only grew stronger as he grew older.” Please read Addyman’s book. But Rostand makes Cyrano utter these dying words: “...yet there is something still that will always be mine, and when I go to God’s presence...”

“God’s presence?” This flatly contradicts the convictions Cyrano held with such passion all his life and for which he gave his life. It denies everything Cyrano stood for. There is no god in Cyrano’s universe. It is an infinite material universe that goes on forever and ever with no beginning, no end and no creator.

“There is something still that will always be mine.” Rostand has Cyrano say. “There I’ll doff it and sweep the heavenly pavement with a gesture - something I’ll take unstained out of this world... my panache.”

The panache, the white plume, symbolizes a flamboyant manner and a reckless courage. Rostand makes a big deal out of Cyrano’s panche. But Rostand hides from the world the fact that Cyrano’s panache was his atheism. Fervid freethinker! Freedom fighter! Champion of the mind! Worshiper of Reason! Materialist! Genius! Atheism was Cyrano’s panache!

Thank you. See you at the movie Monday...

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Comment by Gene Gordon on March 26, 2014 at 9:18am

Thanks for writing, Randall.

Comment by Randall Smith on March 26, 2014 at 7:28am

Interesting and informative. I'm a little more knowledgeable than I was 5 minutes ago. Thanks.

Comment by Gene Gordon on March 25, 2014 at 9:26am

I love the idea! And it would work, because Cyrano was an Epicurean, after all. Here is Cyrano not with a burger, but with a bird on his nose.

Comment by Michael Penn on March 25, 2014 at 8:47am

I always liked the idea of "Cyrano de Burger Shack." The sign would show a smiling Cyrano with a burger balanced on top of his big nose. It won't rival McDonald's but it might make a go at it in places like Houston, Texas.

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