Pressing the Issues

Book cover
Five Moral Piecesby By Umberto EcoHarcourt. 125p $23.

Umberto Eco is that relatively rare phenomenon, a public intellectual who plies his specific academic trade as a semiotician but also ventures beyond the ivy cover to pronounce on public issues and to play the critic. He is also, of course, a successful novelist, who in The Name of the Rose may have written the most half-read bestseller of the past two decades.

The current volume is much slighter and will not tax your Latin; it is in fact a collection of five disparate lectures and essays presented or published over the past decade, tied together somewhat loosely by a common thread of ethical concern. The issues range from war to religious belief to the press and international affairs. Eco’s perspective shifts from lofty overview on religion and politics to trench-like specificity on the state of the Italian press.


His essay on war goes back to the time of the first President Bush and our tidy little war in Iraq. Eco, unwilling to surrender the high ground, begins by discounting the potential success or usefulness of that war as an argument in favor of war. Against it he maintains that the interdependence of modern society and its economy (a neoconnectionist or neural system), plus the continued existence of nuclear weapons, render modern all-out hot war inconceivable. To take its place he polishes off that old standby, cold war, as an acceptable substitute, but is it? Where terrorism might fit into the pattern is anyone’s guess.

For Eco religion and ethics are close allies. In his public dialogue with Cardinal Carlo Martini, S.J., of Milan, of which we get only one piece here, he dismisses the notion that one could prove the nonexistence of God. For himself, the development of an ethic of universal and self-sacrificial love, whether tied to a religious narrative or not, represents the highest form of human attainment. With that, believer and unbeliever can come together and let their other differences be regulated by charity and prudence. I doubt the cardinal would disagree, but it is disappointing to hear only one side of the dialogue.

So too with the longest essay on the Italian press, which was part of a symposium. Eco lambastes the newspapers and the politicians for playing an incestuous game with one another, egged on by television journalists who attempt to create news in their endless interviews. In comparison, he gives high marks to The New York Times for its international coverage and to Time and Newsweek as weeklies that delve more deeply into issues and stories and do not simply repeat the dailies.

The last two essays return to overtly political/ethical themes with an internationalist flavor. Ur-Fascism attempts to detail the essential characteristics of that aberration, regardless of local differences. Eco begins with a personal reminiscence of winning a national essay contest at the age of 10 in 1942 for enthusiastically endorsing the proposition that all Italians should be willing to die for Duce and country. A year later, upon the arrest of Mussolini, he discovered to his amazement that there actually were other political parties in Italy! All told, he lists 14 characteristics of fascism that transcend national differences. Most of them are unsurprising (traditionalism, irrationalism, an obsession with conspiracies, elitism, etc.) But his main point, and warning, is that this deadly political cocktail remains attractive to the middle class in every modern society when times go bad.

The final essay (Migration, Tolerance, and the Intolerable), incorporating as it does three separate pieces, is the least satisfying though the topics are urgent. The movements of large numbers of third world people into Europe and to a lesser extent into the United States are approaching migration rather than immigration, which is, in principle, legally controlled and operates on the principle of assimilation. Europe, he predicts, will become a multiracial continent in the next millennium, ours all the more so. In such a world, tolerance becomes an absolute necessity and is no longer an optional accessory.

Despite the frustrations of the form, these refashioned talks and essays are always engaging as Eco turns his considerable intelligence and wit to contemporary dilemmas that simply will not go away.

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