I have always appreciated the writings of Umberto Eco. He made his name as a writer through the story most of us know, The Name of the Rose. Like Foucault’s Pendulum, it is a story of intrigue and teasing the human imagination only to leave the reader disappointed. The monks of the abbey sought a supernatural explanation for simple human skulduggery. The great conspiracy in Foucault’s Pendulum whittled down to nothing, to mere futility. That is often how things are in life.
Conspiracies recur in Eco’s work, especially that of the so-called Protocols of Zion, a forgery formulated to justify the persecution of Jews. Hitler made the most of it as a part of his big lie. Conspiracy paranoia is a temptation we all suffer from to a point. What we don’t know, we make up, and we experience this in the present situation in Syria between Russia and NATO. I tend to believe the Russian side of the story, but I still get nagging doubts. Perhaps godless capitalism and creeping Orwellianism are on the side of the Angels and we are not indoctrinated (cough, holy) enough to believe it. Sorry, forgive my cynicism…
Eco knows that dictatorships use the conspiracy theme to achieve their goals of domination. He saw this in Berlusconi in Italy. He is firmly on the political left and is not a practising Catholic in spite of being an Italian. Umberto Eco is a university professor and an academic who made a success of novel writing. His writing is a challenge, something I enjoy in a good book.
He has recently written in the Telegraph an interesting article, God isn’t big enough for some people. The article can be read in its place. I will merely pick up on one or two things. The first is that it would be hard to go through life without religion, without hope, faced with the stark reality of our mortality and seemingly no guarantee of anything beyond the grave or cremation furnace or whatever. Even the most hardened materialists have to find something, like scientists being involved in spiritualist séances.
Death is the great leveller. It does not discern between rich and poor, the successful and those who have failed in life. It, with the idea of justifying our existence, is the one great motivation for religious behaviour. That religion is fading away in Europe. Communism is gone, capitalism is now bubble-and-bust banking. Catholicism is dying.
Inevitably, Eco would bring up the saying attributed to G.K. Chesterton: “When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing. He believes in anything“. Nature abhors a vacuum, so we are given to believe. Like the monks in the dark Italian abbey of the early fourteenth century, we are incredibly credulous. Watch out for what purports to prove life after death. Many mediums have been exposed as frauds, and the “ectoplasm” turned out to be a bit of cheesecloth hanging out of their mouths. Those who get worked up are often crushed with disappointment.
Perhaps it is through having read some of Eco’s work that we don’t get worked up by something like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. It’s a great yarn, but that’s all it is. Eco expresses his disappointment with modern humanity yearning for something impossible.
We sometimes need to be more Enlightenment and Classical to offset the excesses of Romanticism! Our great warning is how easily Hitler got into power in 1933 through making people believe in such rubbish as “Aryan supermen”. We are ashamed to see just how crappy Nazi mythology really was and how it took in millions of Germans and people in other countries. I have often mentioned Julius Evola and some of the intuitions he expressed, but he too was a charlatan. Perennial Traditionalism just whittles down to nothing in spite of all the efforts to revive something great.
I appreciate Umberto Eco for bringing us back down to earth. Should we suck up materialism and the idea of being worth no more than the meat we eat? Should we return to mundane parish Catholicism in spite of the changes since the 1960’s and the banality? Religion and belief are part of us whether we like it or not. I note that Eco is not an atheist but rather an Italian lapsed Catholic. He likes to leave the reader dissatisfied, which seems to me to be intentional. Whichever way you turn, you’re not going to find the perfect answer. You will keep searching or will give up the search.
I do think we should allow ourselves to be challenged, because it is good for our sense of integrity and autonomy of mind. I have often offered outlandish ideas in this blog, but always with the reserve that I am not sure. It’s just what’s happening in my mind faced with alternative and mainstream news about the Middle East situation. We have to sober up from time to time!
Is the title the French equivalent to Horace’s “naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret?”
I would be interested to read your reflections on Rousseau’s most extended discussion of religion, in that section of his huge novel *Emile* which is often excerpted separately as “The Creed of a Savoyard Priest,” as some of his themes seem to relate to several of your recent postings. Rousseau was, of course, a Deist like Voltaire and the other Enlightenment philosophes (save for those, who, like Diderot moved on to atheism), but unlike the others, who thought that God could only be known, or his existence be deduced, through Reason, and who in practice were complete determinists (the illusion of free will sufficed for Voltaire, although he conceded that it did not really exist), Rousseau thought that God actually communicated with individuals through what he termed “conscience,” that human beings really possessed free will, and that all religions, although strictly speaking false in their dogmas and claims, were both necessary for societies and individuals and, at least potentially, beneficial to them.
I do believe it is. I couldn’t find Horace’s quote. It tends to betray a cynical attitude with someone who is making an effort to reform his life. However, we find the warning by Christ to be careful when exorcising a demon, lest seven others that are much worse take the first demon’s place. It isn’t enough to reform one’s life. There must be something to replace the banished vice!
That’s going to be a tough one! I have some big translation jobs on, but perhaps between Christmas and New Year when the world seems to stop… To be truthful, I would have to read the works in question before commenting. I put man’s relationship with God before the usefulness of religion for well-ordered civil life. As you express Rousseau’s thought, what dreary Classicism!
As I see it, a tamed and secularized religion is extremely useful for building and maintaining a well-ordered and ultimately man-centered civil life – but this is only true when religion is molded to serve the interests of men.
However, when God (and man’s relationship to Him) are the primary emphasis of religion, i. e, when religion is true to God, it is potentially disruptive, as among its primary purposes is the questioning of all human institutions by comparing them to God’s intent. Martyrdom, on which some of the Fathers claim the Church is built, is, in its very nature, a disruptive force.
Ed, you first paragraph fits perfectly the sophist philosopher, Critias, as the reason to have religion. To preserve civil society.
Yes, I’m aware of that, and Father alluded to it above, as also to the inadequacy of such thinking, my point, of course, being that such a tamed religion is no more than a human tool that has little if anything to do with man’s relationship to God. Usefulness has no equivalence to truth. Criteas’ concept of religion has little to do with God. As CS Lewis wrote of the lion that stands in for Christ, “Aslan is not a tame lion,” and, “He’s not safe, but he’s good.”
This reminds me of the line in The Name of the Rose when William of Baskerville offers spiritual advice to his young apprentice Adso: “How peaceful life would be without love, Adso, how safe, how tranquil, and how dull“.