Five Moral Pieces

by Umberto Eco

Published by Harcourt

111 pages, 2001

Buy it online






Morality's Echo

Reviewed by Adrian Marks


Best known internationally for his multilayered and faceted novels The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum and The Island of the Day Before, (A fourth novel, Baudolino, was published in Italy in 2000: no word on when the English translation can be expected.) even some fans might be surprised to learn that Umberto Eco has a very public intellectual life that has little or nothing to do with the novels he writes. With 20 or more honorary degrees and a CV taller than most basketball players, Umberto Eco is one of the world's leaders in the field of semiotics; the study of the meaning and relationship of signs and symbols of all kinds. In 1971, well into a career that had included journalism and academia, Eco was made the first professor of semiotics as the University of Bologna, the oldest university in Europe. It's a position he retains into the present, despite the publication of three important novels and literally scores of books of a more academic nature.

Umberto Ecos' latest book to be published in English, Five Moral Pieces, would fit more easily into the latter category than the former. Comprised of essays either previously published or delivered as speeches at conferences, the five essays included are all, writes Eco, "ethical in nature, this is to say, they treat of what we ought to do, what we ought not to do, and what we must not do at any cost."

The book was published in the Italian in 1997 and so the relevance of Five Moral Pieces is a bit of a surprise. If you didn't know better you would, upon reading it, think that Five Moral Pieces had been quickly assembled into book form in response to the events of September 11 and what has followed. It was not. But then, Eco has almost always been accused of thinking that is ahead of his time. The titles of the included essays provide a hint:

"Reflections on War" (written at the time of the Gulf War.)

"When the Other Appears on the Scene" (An answer to the question, posed to Eco by Cardinal Martini: "What is the basis of the certainty and necessity for moral action of those who, in order to establish the absolute nature of an ethic, do not intend to appeal to metaphysical principles or transcendental values, or even to universally valid categorical imperatives?")

"On the Press" (Which, though delivered as a speech in Italy, ends up being a vital comment on the state of free press in the world today.)

"Ur-Fascism" (An anti-fascism-themed piece delivered orally in the United States in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.)

"Migration, Tolerance, and the Intolerable" (Organized at the approach to the new millennium, Eco muses on a number of topics, including racial intolerance and its roots.)

What links this disparate-seeming quintet is, as the title suggests, morality: its roots, application and evolution. As always, Eco sheds light wherever he chooses to cast his eye. Take, for example, this passage on political correctness from "Migration, Tolerance, and the Intolerable." Eco manages to articulate something that many of us have felt but have been unable to put into words:

Think of the phenomenon of political correctness in America. This sprang from the desire to encourage tolerance and the recognition of all differences, religious, racial, and sexual, and yet it is becoming a new form of fundamentalism that is affecting everyday language in a practically ritual fashion...

This from the same essay, written in the late 1990s, proves, as does much of Five Moral Pieces -- to be chillingly prescient. He writes here about the migration of people from the Third World to Europe.

This meeting (or clash) of cultures could lead to bloodshed, and I believe to a certain extent it will. Such a result cannot be avoided and will last a long time.

At just 111 pages, Five Moral Pieces packs a philosophical wallop surprising in such a slender book. Or maybe not so surprising. Eco's prose here is beautiful in its simplicity: he describes a rich canvas with a very narrow arc, as here, from "When the Other Appears on the Scene":

We are erect animals, so it is tiring to stay upside down for long, and therefore we have a common notion of up and down, tending to favor the first over the second.

Does Eco resolve any of the world's important social problems in Five Moral Pieces? I'm not entirely certain that the question is relevant. What he does manage to do is make us pause, make us think and perhaps make us consider things that were right under our noses all along. | November 2001


Adrian Marks is an author and journalist.