Five Moral Pieces

Five Moral Pieces

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by Umberto Eco

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Embracing the web of multiculturalism that has become a fact of contemporary life from New York to New Delhi, Eco argues that we are more connected to people of other traditions and customs than ever before, making tolerance the ultimate value in today's world. What good, he asks in a talk delivered during the Gulf War, does war do in a world where the flow of

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Embracing the web of multiculturalism that has become a fact of contemporary life from New York to New Delhi, Eco argues that we are more connected to people of other traditions and customs than ever before, making tolerance the ultimate value in today's world. What good, he asks in a talk delivered during the Gulf War, does war do in a world where the flow of goods, services, and information is unstoppable and the enemy is always behind the lines? What makes news today, who decides how it will be presented, and how does the way it is disseminated contribute to the widespread disillusionment with politics in general?

In the most personal of the essays, Eco recalls experiencing liberation from fascism in Italy as a boy, and examines the various historical forms of fascism, always with an eye toward such ugly manifestations today. And finally, in an intensely personal open letter to an Italian cardinal, Eco reflects on a question underlying all the reflections in the book: What does it mean to be moral or ethical when one doesn't believe in God?

Thoughtful and subtle as well as pragmatic and relevant, these essays present one of the world's most important thinkers at the height of his critical powers.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Instead of that tone of constipated envy we associate with criticism,
Eco's essays read like letters from a friend, trying to share something he loves with someone he likes."—San Francisco Review of Books

"One of the most influential thinkers of our time."—Los Angeles Times

Publishers Weekly
Most famous for his complex, erudite novels, semiotician and literary theorist Eco (Foucault's Pendulum, etc.) devotes these occasional essays primarily to the quest for tolerance in an intolerant world and to the intellectual responsibility of individuals to confront difficult moral problems directly. Eco observes, for example, that war contradicts "the very reasons for which it is waged" in a world where telecommunications technology and constant migration render traditional rationalizations for war (e.g., the defense of borders) obsolete. In the end, he argues, war cannot be defended, for, in addition to its manifold evils, it is a wasteful enterprise, squandering lives and resources. In another essay, Eco contends that ethical principles can indeed be articulated apart from any grounding in religious faith, though a natural ethic and a religious ethic may share common ground. Examining the reporting techniques of several Italian newspapers, he asserts that they share a moral responsibility to inform rather than to titillate with gossip and advertising. In the collection's most eloquent essay, Eco sketches the universal elements of fascism (such as "the cult of tradition" and a "suspicion of intellectual life"), emphasizing that such elements persist even today and can appear in the most innocent guises. Finally, he reveals the complex bond linking migration, with the resulting impact of one culture on another, and intolerance, concluding that the only solution is to teach tolerance from birth. Eco's fans will enjoy his perspective on these issues, but aside from his worthy reflections on fascism, these pieces neither ask new questions nor reach startling conclusions; some are evenquite simplistic (e.g., "War is a waste"). (Nov.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The author of three best-selling, ingeniously plotted novels and several collections of sharp and witty essays (most recently Kant and the Platypus), Eco here presents five pieces on the fragility of ethical principles in postmodern culture. The essays, which originated as lectures, were either prompted by a crisis (the Gulf War, the trial of a Nazi criminal, the rise of ultra-conservatives in Europe) or an invitation to weigh in on public debates on postmodern ethics, the implosion of journalistic standards in our age of infotainment, or the perils and promise of migration for this millennium. Eco did not iron out the marks left by these occasions, and the remaining traces of spoken language nicely offset his conceptually rigorous engagement with weighty issues. A discussion of the possibilities for a nonfoundational ethics is trenchant, convincing, and highly rewarding for serious readers. Confessional moments about his coming-of-age in fascist Italy, however, are slightly flat, like set pieces in often-told tales. In its entirety, this slim volume is cogently argued and periodically sparkles with the kind of wit and insight that readers have come to expect from one of Italy's brightest minds. Recommended for larger public libraries, academic libraries, and special collections. Ulrich Baer, NYU Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"Occasional pieces," all dating from the 1990s, that include essays, speeches, and revised correspondence from the erudite novelist-philosopher-semiotician Eco (Kant and the Platypus, 1999, etc.). Eco speculates (in "When the Other Appears on the Scene" and "Migration, Tolerance, and the Intolerable") that the bases of moral actions that not specifically grounded in religious belief arise from an acknowledgement of "the importance of the other." The former piece is quite closely reasoned, but the latter (which meanders between assessing the influence of "migrant" populations on settled societies and condemning the "Eurocentric" nature of what might be called millennial chic) is rather less focused. Elsewhere, Eco considers the relationship of the "intellectual community" to the (arguably now obsolete) phenomenon of military conflict, concluding (in "Reflections on War") that "It is an intellectual duty to proclaim the inconceivability of war." In "On the Press," he analyzes the impact of instantaneous communication and "the dynamic of provocation" (especially as perfected by television interviewers). And in "Ur-Fascism," which offers a series of keen discriminations between Mussolini's fascism and Hitler's Nazism, he makes a convincing case for using the former word generically, as "a synechdoche . . . for different totalitarian movements"-while simultaneously sketching in an illuminating piecemeal memoir of growing up in Italy during WWII. Most persuasive when (as here) most personal, Eco attempts in these brief arguments to create a convincing impression of a conscientious intellectual earnestly addressing contemporary social and moral crises as a means of understanding "what we oughtto do, what we ought not to do, and what we must not do at any cost." A helpful and intermittently revealing (if scarcely essential) gloss on both Eco's unusual fiction and his knotty philosophical and semantic studies.

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st U.S. Edition
Product dimensions:
5.86(w) x 9.08(h) x 0.62(d)

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