30 July 2009

Five Moral Pieces (Umberto Eco)

In his introduction, Umberto Eco writes that the five essays in this book are occasional pieces and ethical pieces. Their occasional nature arises from their being speeches given at some conference or articles commissioned for publication. Their ethical nature is what makes them moral pieces: “they treat of what we ought to do, what we ought not to do, and what we must not do at any cost.”

What we ought to do, or what fans of Eco ought to, is read this short book – a mere 111 pages. I read it in two sittings. It is by no means an essential or a required Eco. In fact these are only slight pieces – meaning they are short and minor essays, yet with big themes. And, I hasten to add, they are highly readable pieces, even if they are structured to be knotty moral-philosophical arguments.

The essays are not of uniform quality. Some strike me as well thought out, others are just plain fillers. “Reflections on War” (1991) was written at the start of the Gulf War – “just as Allied troops enter Kuwait City” – but its relevance surpasses its time. Not only because war is timeless in the first place, but because the issues still resonate on the previous/current “war on terror” and the next wave of war in Iraq that George W. Bush architected and justified by lying through his teeth. The principles given in this first polemical essay are prescient as they apply to modern warfare in general. Eco discusses the role of technology in modern war and why this makes obsolete and revises the art of war given by Clausewitz.

Eco’s reflections in this first essay, and in all others following it, are not really too focused or too tight. Yet his conclusions and assertions, even if predictable in parts, are nonetheless powerful and explored creatively. This is because he arrived at them obliquely. Eco has this unique style of circling around ideas playfully before confronting the issues full frontal.

The essay that I consider the weakest, and which I find too theoretical, is “Ur-Fascism.” The essay defines several hybrids of fascism and Nazism and differentiates between and among these types. It is the sort of essay that is limited by its geographic experience and scope (Europe) though not by its subjects (racism and intolerance).

What we ought not to do is dismiss offhand Eco’s arguments. They are well developed, free-ranging thoughts. They skim on several surfaces and make some surprising turns and dives. Since these are short pieces, Eco goes to the nib of an idea without being laborious. The labor of reading constitutes only in the wonderment at a quick change in register, quite unlike his fiction. Eco’s novel The Island of the Day Before, for example, despite being great, contains stultifying passages that can bore the hell out of an "addled reader" (reader with ADD). What these essays share with his fiction is the living wit behind the prose.

“When the Other Appears on the Scene” is another playful essay, constructed as real correspondence to a priest, a cardinal. It reminds me of The Creation by E. O. Wilson. While The Creation is concerned about the cultivation of an environmental ethic, Eco’s essay briefly sketches the foundation of a “lay ethic”, or ethics for the laity, specifically that for nonbelievers. One of Eco’s striking arguments goes like this: a nonbeliever also has a lot to fear for sinning and has a lot to repent because, at the back of his mind, he is not so lucky to have a god who can forgive him his sins.

I’m not sure if Eco is an atheist (not sure if Google will say), but his letter points to this absentee kind of religious preoccupation. Eco eventually arrives at what he calls “natural ethic” which he believes “can find common ground with the principles of an ethic founded on faith in transcendence.” This reminds me of Wilson’s book because that book is also addressed as a letter to a man of religion, a pastor, and also seeks to find common ground between two supposedly contending institutions, that of pragmatic science and dogmatic religion.

“On the Press” demonstrates Eco as a credible academic, blasting the Italian press for the seemingly shallow coverage of non-substantial news. He has mustered evidence from the news articles themselves to validate his claims and in the end, he suggests practical solutions to promote the integrity of journalism. This essay broadly anticipates scandals and controversies of public political figures in the press.

The last essay in a way serves to encapsulate the basic idea of the whole book. This is not just a conflation of disconnected pieces after all; they can also try to cohere. The essay is about intolerance, a basic feature of the modern world, now that we are global and globalized, and multiculturalism is the state of nature. This last essay is a bit distracted and diffused also but it contains philosophical gems. There is, for example, a rule of thumb proposed to justify the decision of nations who are faced with a choice of whether or not to interfere or intervene in another nation’s seemingly intolerable acts. This is a very thorny contemporary issue. (Just think of the recent bloodshed in Myanmar and the challenge of democracy in Honduras: Should nations act decisively in such cases, despite directly threatening the sovereignty of the erring nations, or should they just watch events unfold on TV?) But again, the soundness and power of Eco’s solution is morally apt. For as long as nations are mulling decisions in the international arena, and individuals in their personal lives, choices have to be made in black and white. Suffer the consequences later, or as Eco phrased it, be “ready to pay the price of error.”

What we ought not to do, and what we must not do at any cost is lead immoral lives, however that is done. Eco shows some hints, insights, and bases of “the certainty and necessity for moral action.” His pieces on war and war crimes, religion and disbelief, freedom of the press, tolerance, and fascism, uphold basic decency as the sturdy rope that knots into a strong moral fiber. This book of essays may be occasional and slight and fleeting but they clarify a lot of things. If we listen, we can filter the noise and din from the explosions of war, intolerance, and libel. The line must be drawn and the cord pulled down. Living is simply choosing. The sound of our confidence is hidden in trying journeys.

It tolls for thee.

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