Though I have admittedly lingered a long time at the side of the Caballero de la Triste Figura, I can imagine worse companions. Much has occurred since we last checked in on him here--his frightful penance in the Sierra Morena, the chance encounters with others fleeing to desolate solitude, the faithful pursuit of the barber and the curate, the re-encounter and reunion of lovers wronged and reconciled, the cautionary tale of the Curioso impertinente, the appearance of the beautiful mora, and don Quijote's mighty battle with the giants, who, utterly vanquished, transformed themselves into busted wine casks.
And so, at the end of chapter XXXVII, we are given a respite from all this furious action, as the don, over supper, holds forth on the question of which profession is noblest--that of arms, or that of letters?
Though we automatically think of Cervantes, first, as a writer, he had much experience as a soldier. After a brief stint with the future Cardinal Aquaviva in Rome, Cervantes, in 1570, took service on the galley Marquesa and fought in one of the world's decisive battles, Lapanto, where he received a serious and permanent wound to his left hand. For the next few years he continued as a soldier in a number of companies, until his capture and sale into five year's slavery in North Africa.
Cervantes is certainly not unique as a soldier-writer. A moment's thought can turn up a number of them, from Thucydides to T.E. Lawrence. And "letras" does not, for Cervantes, mean "belles lettres." By the profession of "letters" he means formal learning, formal education for the Church, or law, or the service of a prince. I don't believe that Cervantes ever took any degree; our automatic impulse, then, to class one of the great writers of all times as a partisan of letters over arms may not be quite warranted.
Don Quijote, in his discourse, judges the two callings by two measures--which has the noblest end, and which makes the greatest demands on its practicioners. On both accounts, arms takes the palm.
We are rightly of two minds about violence. It is plainly from arms, from armies, from weapons, from soldiers, that the horrors of war proceed. But don Quijote asserts, without irony, that peace is his profession: "[H]ablo de las letras humanas, que es su fin poner en su punto la justicia distributiva y dar a cada uno lo que es suyo, entender y hacer que las buenas leyes se guarden. Fin, por cierto, generoso y alto y digno de grande alabanza, pero no de tanta como merece aquel a que las armas atienden, las cuales tienen por objeto y fin la paz, que es el mayor bien que los hombres pueden desear en esta vida." Letters (aside from divinity) have as their end justice, and the right ordering of society. The profession of arms aims at peace, a greater good.
This assertion is repeated, with more conviction, toward the end of the discourse:
"...con las armas se defienden las repúblicas, se conservan los reinos, se guardan las ciudades, se aseguran los caminos, se despejan los mares de cosarios; y, finalmente, si por ellas no fuese, las repúblicas, los reinos, las monarquías, las ciudades, los caminos de mar y tierra estarían sujetos al rigor y a la confusión que trae consigo la guerra el tiempo que dura y tiene licencia de usar de sus previlegios y de sus fuerzas."
This is "arms" as defense, as the force which, necessarily, underlies all earthly order. It is that which the knight declares to be the highest secular calling.
There is also a moving comparison of the miseries of the student, as compared with the miseries of the soldier. Don Quijote readily acknowledges the student's life to be hard one, but insists that the soldier's is incomparably harder, carrying with it, in addition to hunger, tedium, poverty, and exposure to the elements, the unique and continual threats of injury, disfigurement and death. He interestingly takes time to curse the inventor of gunpowder and artillery, who takes from the soldier the honor of facing his enemy man to man, and of testing his valor by the might of his arm.
Don Quijote speaks all this without irony. Does Cervantes? My feeling is that, here, the fictional character speaks for the author. Yes, we know that Don Quijote is insane. But his insanity comes from his perceptions, his impeded understanding, not his values. And though every word that proceeds from his mouth is, by reason of his condition, suspect, Cervantes accords him, at the end, the dignity of having convinced the others: "El cura le dijo que tenía mucha razón en todo cuanto había dicho en favor de las armas, y que él, aunque letrado y graduado, estaba de su mesmo parecer."