Five Moral Pieces

Five Moral Pieces

Umberto Eco.
Translated by Alastair McEwen

Harcourt Inc., 2001, ISBN 0-15-100446-3; Hardcover $23.00. [Browse/Purchase for $16.10]

Review by Seamus A. Thompson

Five Moral Pieces is certainly not a bargain ($23.00 for 111 pages) but a new book by Umberto Eco is always welcome, even when it's a slender volume of essays with a fairly hefty price tag. This collection explores a variety of moral, ethical, and socio-political issues ranging from theology to the role of the press to the "impossibility" of war. Though originally composed as individual essays, there is a strong set of values and preoccupations unifying all five pieces. As Eco notes in his introduction, "Despite the variety of their themes, they are all ethical in nature, that is to say, they treat of what we ought to do, what we ought not to do, and what we must do at any cost." A further concern that appears in each piece in various ways is Eco's concern with the fate of morals in an increasingly diverse world. Eco's concern is not reactionary, but progressive: how can we simultaneously respect the diverse beliefs and morals of the cultures with which we coexist in an increasingly borderless world without becoming lost in moral relativism? As he meditates on issues like war, the press, fascism, immigration, and even the basis for morals themselves, Eco is always mindful of the complex role of morals in these increasingly international times.
"Reflections on War" opens the collection and is probably the most challenging of the five essays. Writing in 1991 in response to the Gulf War, Eco quickly broadens his scope to encompass the "inconceivability" of war in general arguing that "the discovery of atomic energy, television, air transport, and the birth of various forms of multinational capitalism have resulted in some conditions that make war impossible." These conditions vary from the antiecological nature of war to the undermining of propaganda by contemporary communication technologies such as television and the Internet. Eco further argues that multinational capitalism no longer purely benefits from a state of war since some economic powers (the travel and entertainment industries, for instance) require peace to thrive. Of particular interest to Eco is the idea that war is no longer a "serial" intelligent system -- in other words, no longer a cause and effect struggle like a game of chess. Instead, he argues, "Contemporary warfare is like a game of chess in which both players . . . move and take pieces of the same color." In the end, Eco believes that humanity has all the makings for a universal taboo against warfare. All that remains is to make people aware of the reasons that war is a waste, and to wait for the taboo to develop. Of course, this is a mammoth task, and Eco seems to claim it for the intellectual community. Intellectual discourse on war since 1945 has been voluminous and influential, Eco argues, and consequently people can no longer speak of war as world hygiene in a credible way. Of course, the amount of credit Eco assigns to intellectuals rather than mass movements is questionable, as is Eco's oversimplified model of "old" or "classical" war. He even raises the question of whether or not warfare was really all that different, but he offers no answer. Ultimately, "Reflections on War" proves unsatisfying and leaves behind that unusual sensation of agreeing with many of the points of an argument, but not with its conclusion.
The most traditional of the five pieces, "When the Other Appears on the Scene" is also the most commonplace. Part of the series of epistolary theological discussions between Eco and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, and originally published by Liberal magazine (the other pieces in this series are collected in 1999's Belief or Nonbelief), "When the Other Appears on the Scene" explores the basis of moral codes and actions among non-believers. The crux of Eco's argument is that "the ethical dimension begins when the other appears on the scene. Every law, moral or juridical as it may be, regulates interpersonal relationships, including those with an other who imposes that law (22)." The topic is a well-worn one, and a less charming author writing in a less engaging form would be hard pressed to come up with as readable a theological essay.
At times reminiscent of Neil Postman's scathing attack on popular media Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, "On the Press" is an often sharply critical discussion of the largely negative evolution of journalism since the introduction of television. First presented as part of a series of seminars organized by the Italian senate with the cooperation of editors from some of Italy's best known dailies, this is probably the most obscure of the essays for American readers. Many of the references are to newspapers, magazines, and television personalities known only to those familiar with Italian journalism and popular culture. Nevertheless, Eco's observations are not so specific to Italy that they cannot be applied to the U.S. media. In fact, Eco does specifically discuss the U.S. media, and his comments are enough to make one wish that he could dedicate a piece to scrutinizing it alone. The brief comparison of the Watergate and Monica Lewinsky scandals is an interesting example of the general thrust of Eco's argument:

What made the anti-Clinton campaign far more weak and disjointed is that these days we must have a scoop a day, and in order to have this no one hesitates to attribute to Bill and Hillary malfeasance of all kinds -- from property speculation to using state funds to buy cat food. Overkill. Public opinion is disturbed by this, and remains basically unskeptical.

Of course, this is not strictly the reality of the failure of the anti-Clinton campaign. Nonetheless, it is valuable point about the nature of prolonged coverage in an age of media bombardment.
More than any other essay in this collection, "Ur-Fascism" is vintage Eco. Part personal reminiscence, part semiotic tour-de-force, the fourth piece is Eco's attempt to outline the underlying structures of fascism. Originally a speech delivered at Columbia University in 1995 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Europe, Eco also had in mind the recent Oklahoma bombings and "the discovery of the fact (by no means secret) that extreme right-wing military organizations existed in America." After discussing his own childhood memories of the days during and immediately following Fascist control of Italy, Eco then puts forth 14 characteristics of what he calls "eternal fascism." Eco explains that his list of characteristics includes elements that cannot co-exist, but that if any one of them is present "a Fascist nebula will begin to coagulate." The list contains such elements as the cults of tradition, action for action's sake, heroism, and death; the rejection of criticism and diversity, obsession with conspiracies (he cites Pat Robertson's The New World Order), and a scorn for the weak, among others. Towards the end of his speech, Eco makes an impassioned plea to his audience:

It would be easy for us if someone would look out onto the world's stage and say: "I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to march through the streets of Italy once more!" Alas life is not so simple. Ur-Fascism can still return to the most innocent of guises. Our duty is to unmask it and to point the finger at each of its new forms -- every day and in every part of the world.

The collection ends with Eco's discussion of the problem of justice in an increasingly diverse society. There is much of interest in "Migration, Tolerance, and the Intolerable," but it is also where we start to see most clearly the limits of Eco's thinking. What is probably most useful is the distinction Eco draws between migration and immigration: "We have only immigration when the immigrants (admitted according to political decisions) accept most of the customs of the country into which they have immigrated, while migration occurs then the migrants (whom no one can stop at the frontiers) radically transform the culture of the territory they have migrated to." Eco rightly surmises that "what Europe is still trying to tackle as immigration is instead migration" and understands that "Europe will become a multiracial continent . . . whether you like it or not." Despite the strength of this bold assertion, it is frustrating to find Eco also writing that "there is no racism among the rich. The rich have produced, if anything, the doctrines of racism. The poor, on the other hand, have produced its practice, which is far more dangerous." Statements like this one are especially ironic, since much of the essay is an elaboration of the fifth characteristic of Ur-Fascism, "fear of difference." Eco's essay moves to a discussion of Intolerance (in the form of xenophobia, etc) and, finally, to the question of what the international community is bound to find Intolerable. In other words, with all this migration and immigration and all the resulting blurring of borders a new issue arises: " . . . although other people's opinions, customs, practices, and beliefs must be respected [there will be times when] something seems intolerable to us. Accepting the intolerable means casting doubt on our own identity. It is necessary to assume the responsibility of deciding what is intolerable and then taking action, ready to pay the price for error."
So it is that Eco ends Five Moral Pieces by addressing, as all moral exercises must, the difficult problem of recognizing the sovereignty of other cultures and peoples while still exercising our moral responsibility to punish the intolerable. There is no easy answer to this, and Eco does not try to offer one. He only emphasizes our need to take responsibility for our morals and for the acts of justice they require of us. In the wake of September 11, this is a particularly relevant and sobering point.


--Seamus A. Thompson
15 December 2001

email: tseamus@hotmail.com

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