Scroguely Works: Five Moral Pieces

Five Moral Pieces by Umberto Eco, first published 2001, 128 pages, ISBN 978-0156013253

“The modern world looks at war through eyes different from those with which it looked at the problem early in the twentieth century, and if someone were to talk today of the beauty of war as the only form of world hygiene, he would go down not in the annals of literature but in those of psychiatry.”

Umberto Eco is one of the world’s foremost moral philosophers. Many may not know his studies in philosophy and reason but will have heard of The Name of the Rose (1980) or seen the movie of it staring Sean Connery (in 1986). His writing is much more than that.

Eco is Professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna in Italy. It is a Catholic University and Eco describes himself as an agnostic. Semiotics is the study of symbolism and the nature of the signs by which people govern their lives. Five moral pieces is a brief and profound study of the nature of ethics.

There are five essays. The first “On War” was written in 1991 during the first war in Iraq but before the liberation of Kuwait. Eco poses himself the question: “Is war justifiable under any circumstances?” His further demand on himself is that his answer must stand no matter what the result. He is prescient, clear, and haunting.

“Every war of the past was based on the principle that the citizens, believing it to be a just war, were anxious to destroy the enemy. Now information not only shakes the faith of the citizens, it also leaves them vulnerable when faced with the death of the enemy – no longer a distant and vague event but instead unbearable visual evidence.”

He considers that war, like incest, is becoming a taboo.

“Becoming aware that mating with mothers or sisters hindered exchange between groups took thousands of years – it apparently took humanity ages to grasp the cause-and-effect relation between the sexual act and pregnancy. But it took us only two weeks to realize that airline companies close when war breaks out.”

And war, he concludes cannot be justified: it is worse than a crime, it is a waste.

My favourite – and much thumbed essay – is “When the Other appears on the scene”. It is the last in a public exchange of letters between Eco and the Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Martini organised by Liberal Magazine in Rome in 1996. Eco’s reply here is the last in the exchange and unifies his theory of a lay ethics. Eco believes that morality can be developed entirely without need to call upon a third-party deity to act as arbiter. Here he puts his case in one of the most beautiful essays on morality and ethics. I, without apology, present the lengthy centre of his argument.

“But you say that, without the example and the word of Christ, all lay ethics would lack a basic justification imbued with an ineluctable power of conviction. Why deprive laypersons of the right to avail themselves the example of a forgiving Christ? Try, Carlo Maria Martini, for the good of the discussion and of the dialogue in which you believe, to accept even if only for a moment the idea that there is no God; that man appeared in the world out of a blunder on the part of a maladroit fate, delivered not only unto his mortal condition but also condemned to be aware of this, and for this reason the most imperfect of creatures. This man, in order to find the courage to await death, would necessarily become a religious animal, and would aspire to the construction of narratives capable of providing him with an explanation and a model, an exemplary image. And among the many stories he imagines – some dazzling, some awe-inspiring, some pathetically comforting – in the fullness of time he has at a certain point the religious, moral, and poetic strength to conceive the model of Christ, of universal love, of forgiveness for enemies, of a life sacrificed that others may be saved. If I were a travelers from a distant galaxy and I found myself confronted with a species capable of proposing this model, I would be filled with admiration for such theogonic energy, and I would judge this wretched and vile species, which has committed so many horrors, redeemed were it only for the fact that it has managed to wish and to believe that all this is the truth.”

His essay “On the press” is timely reading for those of us concerned about the future of the news media. “Ur-fascism” relates how Fascism is for all time and that any-time a politician or leader declares that “a does not equal a” you are in the presence of a potential fascist. I consider this essay essential reading for any person concerned about the nature of political and social leadership in the present century and will return to this essay in concluding.

“Migration, Tolerance, and the Intolerable” was written in 1997.

“Is it possible to distinguish immigration from migration when the entire planet is becoming the territory of intersecting movements of people? I think it is possible: as I have said, immigration can be controlled politically, but like natural phenomena, migration cannot be. As long as there is immigration, peoples can hope to keep the immigrants in a ghetto, so that they do not mix with the natives. When migration occurs, there are no more ghettos, and intermarriage is uncontrollable.

What Europe is still trying to tackle as immigration is instead migration. The Third World is knocking at our doors, and it will come in even if we are not in agreement. The problem is no longer to decide (as politicians pretend) whether students at a Paris university can wear the chador or how many mosques should be built in Rome.”

And he considers the intolerance that gives rise to xenophobia.

“Intolerance comes before any doctrine. In this sense intolerance has biological roots, it manifests itself among animals as territoriality, it is based on emotional reactions that are often superficial – we cannot bear those who are different from us, because their skin is a different colour; because they speak a language we do not understand; because they eat frogs, dogs, monkeys, pigs, or garlic; because they tattoo themselves …”

The world is not really a confusing place. “a = a” and we need to have the intellectual humility to admit that our assumptions sometimes undermine our ability to express a really true lay ethic. That even a lay ethic can learn from religious teachings. And that fascist thinking is attractive precisely because it panders to our base-instincts and desires for the world to be other than it is.

On the parapet of the bridge
The heads of hanged men
In the water of the fountain
The drool of hanged men

On the cobbles of the market
The fingernails of men shot down
On the dry grass of the meadow
The teeth of men shot down

Bite the air bite the stones
Our flesh is the flesh of men no more
Bite the air bite the stones
Our hearts are the hearts of men no more

But we have read the dead men’s eyes
And the world’s freedom is the gift we bring
While the coming justice is close
Clenched in the hands of the dead.

Franco Fortini

6 replies »

  1. Thanks for bringing Eco’s work to our attention, Gavin. Mexicans’ and Muslims’ migrations to the US and Europe, respectively, are a natural human phenomenon then.

    Thanks also for the powerful Fortini poem.

  2. Russ, if we accept that migration out of Africa starting over 100k years ago was natural, and that the waves of migration throughout human history have been natural, then we have to look at current migration as being “natural”.

    After all, passports and border controls are a fairly recent innovation. Early “Americans” arrived as and when they felt like it. I don’t see why Mexicans and Muslims (also – technically – migrants in their own lands) shouldn’t be allowed to migrate a little further.

    And, if one considers property to be the product of one’s labour, then it appears to me that migrants are willing to invest their most important asset in their adoptive land and should be welcomed as one would any other investor.