In a futuristic American city, Firemen no longer put out blazes – they start them – and the prime target for their arson are the great works of literary history. In the society of Fahrenheit 451 people fill their days by driving recklessly, watching wall-to-wall television, and listening to music through their portable iShell’¦er’¦Seashell radio sets. The pervasive nature of vacuous entertainment is such that the citizens of this dystopian city have become wholly apathetic to the literal holocaust of the great authors carried out by Firemen. Book-burning is a repellent act and ought to be opposed by every civilised person. Not only is it a public display of censorship, something we all find offensive, but it also represents the destruction of ideas – an attempt to erase important concepts from public knowledge. No one who claims the inheritance of the enlightenment could support such an act.
Books, and their content, can challenge our political, religious, and moral sensibilities. Well written literature can change the ethical zeitgeist, inspire a revolution, and even start a new faith – 26 lead soldiers can indeed conquer the world. Because of this, books are often seen by current authorities as divisive and dangerous. If they cannot dispute or counter the ideas contained within, they will resort to destroying the method of propagation in order to prevent the spread of such thoughts. One of the earliest notable book-burning was carried out by the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang, who ordered all philosophy and history books from states other than Qin to be burned. Soon, dissenting scholars who refused to carry out the orders to destroy these important works were being buried alive. The main effect of this book-burning was the loss of the Hundred Schools of Thought which influenced Chinese life. After the persecution ended only the School of Scholars (Confucianism) and the School of Law retained a prominent position. Lost were the schools that focussed on empiricism, reason, and logic – potentially a great setback for the development of Chinese culture.
In 1478 the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, also known as the Spanish inquisition, was established. The aim of this inquisition was to hold trials for adherents of other faiths (Jews and Muslims) and attempt to convert them to Christianity. If they would not convert or agreed to conversion but were later caught taking part in religious rituals from their original faith, they were put to death. Eventually, the suspicion that Muslims were secretly practicing religious rituals led to the majority of them to be expelled from Spain. During the persecution, several religious books including the Koran were burned en masse. In this case, it was the competition of religious sensibilities which led to the attempted extermination of Muslim ideas. The German playwright Heinrich Heine wrote about the Spanish inquisition in the tragedy Almansor, in the mouth of a persecuted Muslim he puts the words “Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.” As burning books cannot completely eliminate an idea , authorities will eventually have to burn people to completely purge the threatening idea from society – and so it was during the inquisition of Spain. In a bit of black irony, Heine’s works were including amongst the Jewish, socialist, and dissident books burned by the Nazi’s in 1933. His quote from Almansor above is engraved on the ground at the site of the burning.
In the category of censorship in the name of moral outrage, nothing comes close to the bonfires of vanities which were especially common in Italy during the fifteenth century. In the most famous fire – lit by Savonarola in Florence – mirrors, statues, cosmetics, art, chess pieces, and lewd books were all burned to ashes. One book in particular was the Art of Love (Ars Amatoria) written by the Roman poet Ovid. The book contains advice on how to find women, seduce them, and then keep them from being stolen away. Savonarola, the theocratic ruler of Florence, decided that this work was too lascivious to be available to the public and so had Ovid’s book consigned to the flames. The bodies soon followed as acts of homosexuality, previously tolerated, became a crime punishable by execution. Many others were sent to the flames for their own acts of immorality. Savonarola was eventually burned to death himself after being excommunicated by the Pope. Ovid’s Art of Love must be particularly bad because further censorship occurred when US customs seized an English translation in the 1930s, almost two thousands years after it was originally written.
In modern times the 451°C threat appears less menacing. With the advent of mass printing and the spread of ebooks online eliminating ideas is much more difficult. However, book-burnings are still a powerful symbol in which various groups declare certain ideas are off-limits to society. Today I learned that a Christian group, the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida, is promoting September 11 as International Burn the Koran Day. Led by Fireman Terry Jones, the evangelical church plans to build a pyre of Korans and they hope their example will be copied around the world. Not much offends me, but I find book-burnings to be completely unacceptable no matter what book is being torched. Even more galling is the pastor’s comments that burning the Koran will give Muslims a chance to convert! This church is so bigoted that they see the Koran as a dangerous book that it needs to be destroyed before people have a chance to read it and are willing to use tactics reminiscent of the Spanish inquisition. They are the latest incarnation of a dangerous movement which seeks the destruction of our cultural and intellectual heritage, and as such they must be opposed. So this September 11, rather than burn a Koran I’m going to read one. Rather than attempting to eliminate certain ideas, I’m going to integrate them a little further into our collective society. Anyone interested in joining me?