Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Questions for Discussion
- In The Dream of Scipio, the stories of Manilus Hippomanes, Olivier
de Noyen, and Julien Barneuve are linked through time by a philosophical
text which suggests that "man is responsible for his own salvation, but
through knowledge, not through deeds or faith." (p. 154). In other
words, "that action is virtuous only if it reflects pure comprehension,
and that virtue comes from the comprehension, not the action." (p.
381). In what ways is this tenet illustrated by the lives of the three main
characters? In what ways is it challenged?
- "Power without wisdom is tyranny; wisdom without power is
pointless." Discuss the trajectories of Manilus, Olivier and Julien in
the context of this phrase. To what degree does each character possess each
quality at the beginning of their stories? What about at the end?
- The historical events depicted in the novel include the fall of Roman
civilization in Gaul; the coming of the plague to Europe; and the fall of
France to the Nazis. Do you think that Manilus, Olivier, and Julien are
motivated by identical forces at different periods in history? Or are they
fundamentally different characters? Discuss.
- Sophia advises Manilus to pretend to worship the Christian gods in order
to attain power; Olivier reads a letter meant for Ceccani, his employer and
protector; Julian betrays Bernard to save Julia without a second thought.
Can you think of other morally ambiguous moments in this novel? How do these
examples relate to the larger theme of individual responsibility in society?
- Compare the father-son relationships of Manilus, Julian and Olivier. How
is each man shaped by his family history? In what ways does each transcend
and fulfill the expectations of his father?
- "Do you think that the peace of a thousand cancels out the unjust
death of a single person?" Sophia challenges Manilus (p. 389). Why does
she see his actions as a corruption of her teachings? What would Sophia say
about Olivier's betrayal of Ceccani? What about Julian's participation in
the Vichy government?
- Compare Sophia, Rebecca, and Julia. In what ways do the women act as
counterpoints to the male characters in the novel? To what conventions are
they bound? To what extent do they fall prey to the norms and restrictions
of the times in which they lived? In what ways do they circumvent these
- In all three time periods depicted in the novel, the fate of the Jews of
Provence played a central role in the outcome of events. Why do you think
the Jews of Manilus' Vaison, Gersonides and Rebecca, and Julia and Claude
Bronsen take on such magnitude in this story? Why are the fates of the
different characters so different? What, if anything, can you infer from the
final assessment of Gersonides to the contents of the manuscript Olivier
brought him? (p.381-382).
- Discuss the ways in which the concept of faith relates to the overall
themes of the novel. For instance, Gersonides poses the question to Olivier:
"...What sort of man can persecute others in the name of a faith he
clearly does not profess?" (p.210). How would you answer this question?
Is the idea of faith equally relevant to all three storylines? Why or why
not? Is Manilus justified in his use of faith to consolidate his power?
- Julien Barneuve thinks of himself as "a crusader for the true values
of civilization, burning with the love of life and learning in an age that
valued neither." (p. 24). Manilus Hippomanes felt a similar fire, as
did Olivier de Noyen, who "had as his private goal the purification of
letters, the casting out of the corruption of his times." (p. 17).
Based on the outcome of their three stories, what would you conclude about
the aforementioned "true values of civilization"? Are there such
things? Who is the arbiter of these values? By what means are they to be
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