Why are we reading Rabelais anyway? He's educated, true, but he's also one of the coarser and filthy writers that you'll find. At least, let me say, I'd be shocked if anything else in the Great Books series compares.
So. Should it be included in the Great Books? As a fellow blogger asked:
I just don't get why this made the Great Books... especially when books like Ovid's Metamorphoses and Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur are noticeably absent.Rabelais started publishing in 1532 and quickly came under fire from the church and the universities. His work would have been banned if the King himself hadn't stepped in. Eco writes of a man a full century later who is still upset that he is being persecuted for his reading tastes. And persecuted by men who are full of sin.Well . . . let me take a swing at this. I'm going to lean a bit on two different books by Umberto Eco, one of my favorite authors. If you're not familiar with Eco, he's an Italian author who studied medieval philosophy and literature and used that knowledge to create some wonderful historical fiction. I was reading from his 'Island of the Day Before' and there is a description of a fighter in the 30 years war. The figher is complaining about the state of the world and says:
Now Jesuits lascivious as rams fulminate against the readers of Rabelais and the latin poets, and would have us all be virtuous and kill the Huguenots.
The state church of the 16th century had too much power. Any organization that can ban books probably has too much power. That's doubly true if they can also grab the ear of the state and spark religious wars. In short, they had too much authority and needed someone to stand up to them.
That's the role that Rabelais played. He said that man should laugh and he provided targets for them to laugh at. He also deflated the authority of some groups that dearly needed to be taken down a notch. (I'd also argue that it does the church no good to become that powerful in worldly affairs. The higher levels of the church were notoriously corrupt. Several medieval popes were contemptible creatures. It's hard to imagine that today.)
But Rabelais is sooo crass! Yes, he is and if he wasn't, he might not have been nearly as effective. His writings wouldn't have been as popular if they'd been more subtle. If he had only offended a little, he would have been quickly forgotten.
The other book by Eco is one of my all time favorites, 'The Name of the Rose' and if you haven't read it before, well, I can't recommend it highly enough. The book is set in an abbey in the late 12th century and it involves a murder mystery. During the book there are a few discussions on the value (if any) of laughter and the ridiculous. Eco's protagonist argues that humor, especially that of the crass and absurd, is important because there is no better weapon against the too powerful. Authority can stand power and challenge but it has trouble with laughter.
Did Rabelais have some effect on the move towards the Enlightenment? I'd have to read more but I wouldn't be surprised if he did. There was a long period of time when much scientific effort was spent solely on Biblical study. Not that such a study is wasted, no, but if it keeps the brightest from studying other areas as well, that's a problem. If Rabelais convinced some of the geniuses of his age to branch out, then he did the world a huge favor.
If I get more time, I'll look online and see if I've suggested too much about Rabelais' influence. Other opinions are certainly welcome and if I'm wrong I look forward to correction in the comments.