Manuscript Found in Accra
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Paulo Coelho is best known for The Alchemist, a book I have not read—although I have read some of the works it imitates. His latest work, Manuscript Found in Accra, is classified as fiction while clearly endeavoring to convey philosophical and religious ideas to the reader.
The author uses the device of the found manuscript—that is, the fictional content of the book is presented as being from a manuscript from the 11th century which was found by chance. Coelho creates a fictional backstory for the finding of the manuscript. He also crafts a fictional backstory for the creation of the work: in 1099 the crusaders are about to invade Jerusalem. A wise man, known as the Copt, is asked various questions by the people who have remained in the city. These questions and his answers are written down by one of those present and the manuscript is hidden for safe-keeping, only to be discovered centuries later.
The work is clear and well written (or, more accurately, well translated by Margaret Jull Costa) and is thus an easy read. While the book has 190 pages, it should be noted that the work is double-spaced, the question for each section appears on its own page (with a following blank page) and the margins are robust. As such, the work is also a quick read.
While I am a professional philosopher, I did endeavor to read the book from two perspectives. The first, obviously enough, is that of a professional philosopher. The second is that of a casual reader.
From my casual reader perspective, the work proved to be an interesting light read. While the author does not go into any real depth, the presentation of Big Ideas in a casual manner does provide some light entertainment and, more importantly, did get me thinking about the ideas raised. As such, I liked the book and can say that it would appeal to those who enjoy the presentation of Big Ideas in the context of fiction.
From my professional philosopher standpoint, the work also proved to be an interesting light read. The author borrows heavily and obviously from various traditions such as Taoism and Christianity and there is not much in the way of original thought here. The author also clearly seems to be trying to imitate the Socratic Method by presenting the Big Ideas in the context of a discussion. However, the intellectual rigor and depth of the full Socratic Method is absent—this is casual conversation with some Big Ideas and not a serious philosophical examination of values. The author also seems to have been influenced by Confucius’ Analects in that there is a wise man speaking his words of wisdom (without any supporting argumentation) to listeners and these words are written down by one of the followers/students.
The comparison to Confucius seems especially apt since the author is employing a method commonly used by the classic Eastern philosophers, namely appealing to intuitions and engaging in storytelling. This is in contrast with classic Western philosophy of the sort done by Plato and Aristotle: rigorous argumentation and in-depth analysis. However, the practice of philosophizing by storytelling has gained considerable traction in contemporary Western philosophy, although it is often dismissed on the obvious ground that telling stories is not a substitute for argumentation.
Since the work is being marketed as fiction, it is certainly tempting to simply say that the lack of argumentation and intellectual rigor is not a big deal. After all, while these things are expected in a work of philosophy (Big Ideas require equally Big Arguments), the standards of fiction are far weaker in this regards. Crudely put, while a philosopher must prove her points, the author of fiction must merely tell a good story. Thus, the question would seem to be whether or not Coelho tells a good story. While there is nothing exceptional about the work, a decent story is told reasonably well. However, Coelho (or at least the folks marketing his book) have the view that it is more than just telling a story for the amusement of the reader. Rather, the book is cast as presenting Big Ideas.
Looked at this way, the work could be seen as engaged in the philosophical method of the appeal to intuition. An intuition is a blend of how one thinks and feels about a matter prior to reflection. Crudely put, it is sort of a “gut” reaction. Naturally, a “gut” reaction is not an argument for a claim. An argument is when reasons are provided in support of a claim.
In the case of an appeal to intuition, the goal of the method is to “motivate” the reader’s intuitions so s/he accepts the claims being presented. This makes the method a blend between persuasion and argumentation.
It is an argument to the degree that the goal is to support a position by providing reasons. It is also persuasion in that the goal is also to get the audience accept a view because the author has presented something that appeals to their intuitions. That is, the goal is to make the audience feel as the authors wants them to feel so that they will think as the author wants them to think. A major weak point of this method is that intuitions are obviously intuitions and not the result of reflection and argument. Because of that fact, this method is strong and effective with people who share intuitions, but tends to be weak and ineffective with people who do not share the same intuitions.
The Big Ideas presented in the book do have intuitive appeal, mainly because they are Big Ideas that have been presented elsewhere (sometimes with arguments backing them up). Naturally, those whose intuitions match these ideas will find the book appealing while those who do not will probably not.
Overall, if you are looking for a light read that dabbles in telling stories about Big Ideas, you will probably like this work of fiction. If you are looking for something with philosophical depth, then you will want to keep looking.