Tag Archives: Italian

“The Crucifix, Its Uses and Customs” by Umberto Eco

In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco discusses whether it is appropriate to display religious iconography, specifically the crucifix, in institutions of public education. I found this to be particularly interesting, given that there seems to be a growing tension between religion and state institutions in the US. Heated debates have erupted over the inclusion of texts in schools, or the display of the Ten Commandments at government buildings, and there does not seem to be any abatement in this tension.

Eco uses examples from his home country of Italy to make his point.

In Italian universities there are no crucifixes in the lecture halls, but many students are members of Catholic groups like Communione e Liberazione. However, at least two generations of Italians spent their youth in classrooms where the crucifix was hung between portraits of the king and Mussolini, and out of every thirty students in every class some became atheists, others fought with the resistance, and others again—the majority, I believe—voted for the Republic. All anecdotal evidence, if you will, but of historical importance, and this tells us that the presence of religious symbols in schools does not affect the spiritual development of the students.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 274 – 275)

Eco makes a great point here. The exposure of young people to religious iconography and doctrine in no way ensures that those individuals will internalize the ideas, and conversely, the lack of these symbols does not mean that individuals will not develop along spiritual pathways. But what Eco adds later in the essay, which to me is the key point, is that tolerance of others is what must be taken into consideration in this issue, and that in a diverse society, if religious topics are to be taught in school, they should be inclusive of all religions.

School curricula of the future must be based not on the concealment of diversity but on teaching the techniques that lead youngsters to understand and accept it. For some time now people have been saying it would be nice, along with religious instruction (and not as an alternative for those who aren’t Catholics), if schools devoted at least one hour a week to the history of all religions, so that Catholic kids might understand what the Koran says or what Buddhists think, and so that Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists (and even Catholics) might understand how the Bible came into being and what it says.

(ibid: p. 276)

I agree with Eco. Personally, I enjoy reading religious texts from diverse traditions and faiths. The idea that one tradition has a monopoly on the truth has led to centuries of warfare and hatred. I feel that every spiritual or religious text has valid insights to share.

Anyway, I think I’ve said enough on this topic. Thanks for stopping by and reading my rambles. Have a great day and keep on reading interesting stuff.

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“The Roots of Europe” by Umberto Eco

In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco provides a brief summary of how Christian Europe assimilated ideas and traditions from ancient and pagan cultures.

In our current society, the adoption of elements from other cultures is now deemed “cultural appropriation” and is definitely something that is frowned upon. But historically, this has not been the case, as Eco points out, and in the past ideas and traditions were shared and incorporated, the result of which was the blossoming of ideas and persistence of traditions.

Europe has assimilated Greco-Roman culture in law, philosophy, and popular beliefs. Often with a certain nonchalance, Christianity absorbed pagan myths and rituals and forms of polytheism that linger on in popular devotion. It wasn’t only the Renaissance that stocked up on Venuses and Apollos as it embarked on the discovery of the ancient world with its ruins and manuscripts. The Christian Middle Ages built its theology on Aristotle’s thinking, rediscovered by the Arabs, and while it knew nothing of Plato, it knew a lot about Neoplatonism, which had a huge influence on the Fathers of the Church. Nor could we conceive of Augustine, the greatest Christian thinker, without the absorption of Platonic ideas. The very notion of empire, which lies at the roots of a thousand years of struggle among European states, and between states and the Church, is Roman in origin. Christian Europe elected Latin as the language of holy ritual, of religious thinking, of law, and of university debate.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 270)

Personally, I am OK with exploring ideas and traditions from other cultures, and incorporating those that resonate with me on a spiritual and intellectual level. But I will credit those other cultures and give them the respect and acknowledgement they deserve. And this is a very important thing to keep in mind. I believe it is acceptable to learn from other cultures and to incorporate elements for the advancement of humanity as a whole, but it is not permissible to steal from another culture as a way of diminishing or damaging that culture. Cultures are living organisms that benefit from diversity. Respect and consideration are critical, though. And if you are ever in doubt, best err on the side of caution.

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Thoughts on “Beauty Queens, Fundamentalists, and Lepers” by Umberto Eco

This short essay is included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. In the essay, Eco employs his wit to address issues of globalization, and how the media contributes to the negative aspects of globalization.

I am one of those who think that out of every ten phenomena of globalization, at least five may have a positive outcome but if globalization does have a negative aspect, it is the violent imposition of Western models on underdeveloped countries to induce consumption and raise hope that such countries cannot fulfill. If I show you beauty queens in swimsuits, it’s because I want to promote the sale of Western beach wear, maybe sewn by hungry children in Hong Kong. The clothing will be bought in Nigeria by those who aren’t dying of hunger (if these people have money to spend, they are making it at the expense of those dying of hunger) and who actively help Westerners exploit the poor and keep them in precolonial condition.

(pp. 261 – 262)

The Covid-19 pandemic has made us all painfully aware of how fragile the globalized consumerist economic model truly is. Our insatiable craving for cheap goods to fill some void within us has killed local manufacturing and the result is that when things fall apart, as they eventually will, we are left without the infrastructure and ability to provide for ourselves. This is evident in the barren shelves which are reminiscent of a dystopian sci-fi film.

I have no idea what our post-coronavirus world will look like, but I am quite certain that it will be very different from what we have become accustomed to.

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Covid-19 and The Decameron

I confess that I have only read about half of The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. But yesterday, I saw a friend’s Facebook post that included a quote from the text, which inspired me to reread the Introduction, which is relevant to what we are dealing with in these times of Covid-19.

So to provide a little background about this book for those who do not know about it:

The book is structured as a frame story containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city. Boccaccio probably conceived of The Decameron after the epidemic of 1348, and completed it by 1353. The various tales of love in The Decameron range from the erotic to the tragic. Tales of wit, practical jokes, and life lessons contribute to the mosaic. In addition to its literary value and widespread influence (for example on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), it provides a document of life at the time. Written in the vernacular of the Florentine language, it is considered a masterpiece of classical early Italian prose.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Boccaccio describes how the plague originated in the East and then spread to the West, eventually infecting people in Florence, similar to the advent and spread of our current pandemic.

I say, then, that the years of the beatific incarnation of the Son of God had reached the tale of one thousand three hundred and forty-eight, when in the illustrious city of Florence, the fairest of all the cities of Italy, there made its appearance that deadly pestilence, which, whether disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies, or sent upon us mortals by God in His just wrath by way of retribution for our iniquities, had had its origin some years before in the East, whence, after destroying an innumerable multitude of living beings, it had propagated itself without respite from place to place, and so, calamitously, had spread into the West.

(p. 1)

Boccaccio then details the initial response, how the city restricted entrance by individuals showing signs of infection. This is the same as the initial response by the US and many other countries as the virus began to spread.

In Florence, despite all that human wisdom and forethought could devise to avert it, as the cleansing of the city from many impurities by officials appointed for the purpose, the refusal of entrance to all sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health; despite also humble supplications addressed to God, and often repeated both in public procession and otherwise, by the devout; towards the beginning of the spring of the said year the doleful effects of the pestilence began to be horribly apparent by symptoms that shewed as if miraculous.

(p. 1)

Next, he describes how the infection was not only passed from sick to healthy persons, but that the germs also survived on materials and could be contracted that way.

Moreover, the virulence of the pest was the greater by reason that intercourse was apt to convey it from the sick to the whole, just as fire devours things dry or greasy when they are brought close to it. Nay, the evil went yet further, for not merely by speech or association with the sick was the malady communicated to the healthy with consequent peril of common death; but any that touched the clothes of the sick or aught else that had been touched or used by them, seemed thereby to contract the disease.

(p. 2)

Finally, individuals are described as going into “voluntary exile,” essentially social distancing until the threat of contagion has passed.

Some again, the most sound, perhaps, in judgment, as they were also the most harsh in temper, of all, affirmed that there was no medicine for the disease superior or equal in efficacy to flight; following which prescription a multitude of men and women, negligent of all but themselves, deserted their city, their houses, their estates, their kinsfolk, their goods, and went into voluntary exile, or migrated to the country parts, as if God in visiting men with this pestilence in requital of their iniquities would not pursue them with His wrath wherever they might be, but intended the destruction of such alone as remained within the circuit of the walls of the city; or deeming, perchance, that it was now time for all to flee from it, and that its last hour was come.

(p. 3)

The social distancers of Boccaccio’s time passed the time by telling stories. Thankfully, we have tools of communicating which were not dreamed of in 14th century Italy. We can share our stories via phone calls, video conferences, social media, and numerous other platforms. In times like this, the stories we share matter. They allow us to stay connected to our humanity. This is why I continue to write here and share with everyone.

As you are staying home, I encourage you to talk with people you know, reach out to those who may be alone, and help each other through these difficult times. Stay safe!

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Thoughts on “The Taking of Jerusalem: An Eyewitness Report” by Umberto Eco

Painting by Émile Signol

So it is no secret that I am a huge fan of Umberto Eco’s work, and this short piece is a fine example of why. It is a piece of brilliant satire intended to demonstrate the absurdity of news commentary, particularly in regard to war coverage. The piece is written from the perspective of a war correspondent covering the taking of Jerusalem during the Crusades.

Typical of a news reporter, the reporter is always looking to get into the heart of the conflict.

My informants tell me that the attack is more interesting on the northwestern front, at Herod’s Gate. I will hop on a mule and try to get to the other side of the walls. And now, back to the studio,

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 255)

The correspondent then gives a play-by-play account, reminiscent of sports commentary. I have often noted that coverage of conflicts, as well as politics, often seem like sports narrative.

From my new position I have a clear view of Godfrey of Bouillon directing the final assault from the top of a tower. The first Christians are on the top of the walls. They are Luthold and Engelbert of Tournai, I’m told, Godfrey and the others follow them, the Moors are falling under their blows, others are leaping from the walls. Herod’s Gate is down—unless it was opened by our men already inside. The men of the Christian Alliance have entered the city on foot and horseback!

(ibid: p. 256)

Toward the end of the piece, Eco makes his most important point, in my opinion. We like to believe that the end of a conflict is the end of the war; this is not true in far too many cases. Sadly, the termination of a conflict is only the beginning of a longer war, that of ideals fueled by resentment and hatred of the other faction.

A monk I spoke to this morning pointed out that this massacre amounts to a defeat. If we are to establish a Christian realm in these lands, we ought to be able to count on the acceptance of the Muslim inhabitants and the tolerance of the neighboring kingdoms. But the slaughter has raised a wall of hatred between Moors and Christians that will endure for years, perhaps centuries. The conquest of Jerusalem is not the end but the beginning—of a very long war.

(ibid: pp. 258 – 259)

We still have this war mentality that permeates so much of our culture: war on crime, war on poverty, war on hunger, war on coronavirus, on and on. Our political debates are battles, this side vs. the other. Everything is broken down to my team against yours (which team are you?). If we are to survive as a species, we need to collectively change this attitude. Us and them no longer works. It has to be we, and that will only be achieved through cooperation and support.

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“Negotiating in a Multiethnic Society” by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

This short essay is included in Eco’s book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism.

Early in the essay, Eco writes:

If, as some say, there are no facts in the world but only interpretations, negotiation would be impossible, because there would be no criterion that would enable us to decide whether my interpretation is better than yours or not. We can compare and discuss interpretations precisely because we can weigh them against the facts they are intended to interpret.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 248)

This gets to the heart of a deep issue we face in our world. People do not share the same sense of what is true and factual. All information, data, and facts are subject to suspicion at best, and often flat out denial, if for no other reason than the source tends to lean to one polarity or another in the sociopolitical sphere. This is why factions are unable to negotiate anymore, making compromise and progress virtually impossible.

Let’s take an example. Let us assume that “climate change is affected by human activity” is a fact. If we can all agree on this fact, then policy makers from both sides of the political spectrum could negotiate how best to address the issue, weighing considerations from each side to ensure the best possible outcome. But when one extreme denies that humans have any influence on climate change, and the other extreme asserts that humans are the sole cause of climate change, then the fact is nullified and constructive negotiation becomes unattainable.

In this age of information, we must be prudent and use critical thinking to avoid the trappings of misinformation. The internet provides support for any idea, regardless of whether that idea has any validity whatsoever. As we enter into the year 2020, let’s try to have a little more clarity in our collective vision, because only through negotiation will we be able to deal with the challenges that face us on a global scale.

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Thoughts on “Holy Wars, Passion, and Religion” by Umberto Eco

In this essay, Eco explores fundamentalism and the need for critical and objective analysis when thinking about this complicated phenomenon. He basically argues that the problem with our approach to understanding fundamentalism is that we look at it from our own cultural perspective and not from the perspective of the society that spawned the fundamentalist movement. He also argues that understanding fundamentalism in other cultures helps us better understand fundamental movements within our own cultures.

Imagine is Muslim fundamentalists were invited to carry out research on Christian fundamentalism (I’m thinking of certain American Protestants, more fanatical than any ayatollah, who would expunge all reference to Darwin from the schoolbooks). Studying the fundamentalism of others helps us understand our own fundamentalism better. Let them come and study our concept of holy war (I could suggest a very interesting reading list, with some recent works), and perhaps they will view the concept in their own countries with a more critical eye. We Westerners have reflected on the limitations of our own way of thinking by describing la pensée sauvage.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 244)

Our world has become very complicated, and as such, people have a general sense of being lost, as the speed of change continues to increase exponentially. This is the reason, Eco states, that we need to apply critical thinking in all areas of our lives.

But maybe it’s only a sign that in times of great disorientation (and we are living through such a time) no one knows where he stands anymore.

It is precisely in such moments of disorientation that we need to apply the tools of analysis and criticism—analysis of our own superstitions as well as those of others. I hope that these things will be discussed in the schools and not only at press conferences.

(ibid: p. 246)

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“Back to the Seventies” by Umberto Eco

This short essay on terrorism is included in the book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism.

Eco begins by asserting the primary goals of terrorist activities.

What is a terrorist act usually intended to accomplish? Since a terrorist organization pursues and insurrectionary utopia, its primary aim is to prevent the establishment of any kind of agreement between the opposition and government … In the second place, terrorism aims to goad the government in power into hysterical repression, which the citizens will then find antidemocratic and unbearably dictatorial, and hence to spark an insurrection among the vast pool of “desperate proletarians or lumpenproletarians” who were only waiting for the last straw.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 225)

When I think about how divided the US has become following the 9/11 attacks, I can only sense that the terrorists were successful. A wall is now in place that makes it nearly impossible for individuals from the right and the left to find any common ground. Both sides are afraid that the other side will infringe upon or take away their rights. The result is that our fear of the “other” is causing our societal fabric to come apart.

Eco concludes that the most dangerous government response to terrorism is an assault on free speech, claiming that anyone who speaks out against the government is supporting the terrorists.

The principle can be put like this: Because terrorists exist, anyone who attacks the government is encouraging them. The corollary: It is criminal to attack the government. The corollary of the corollary is the negation of every democratic principle, blackmail of the press. denial of the freedom to criticize, denial of every act of opposition and every expression of dissent. This is not the abolition of Parliament or of the press (I’m not one of those who talk about the new Fascism) but something worse. It is using moral blackmail, holding up to civic disapproval all who express (nonviolent) disagreement with the government, equating verbal violence—common to many forms of heated but legitimate debate—with armed violence.

(ibid: pp. 227 – 228)

This is now were we are as a society. And I am not singling out any one side. The right and the left are both guilty of this as far as I can see. Progressives seek to silence speakers on campus whose ideas and views contradict theirs, and conservatives label opinions contrary to their own as fake news. We have lost the ability to have passionate debate, and the result is fear and hatred of our neighbors. And if we accept the words of Abraham Lincoln that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” then the terrorists have accomplished what they set out to do.

It’s about time we stopped focusing on our differences and instead seek out commonality. It’s really not too late. We just need to be a little trusting, a little patient, and willing to listen without prejudice.

Thanks for taking the time to read my rambles.

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“Words are Stones” by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

What I love about Umberto Eco is that he was able to look at social and political trends and identify the root causes of the trends. In this essay, he shows how fundamentalism stems from literal interpretations of symbols, specifically words.

He begins by pointing out that words are powerful symbols, but that in our current world culture, many people have lost the ability to recognize the subtlety and distinction when interpreting words. We want everything to be black and white, while words exist in the realm of grey, open for interpretation. (Turning Back the Clock: pp 214 – 216)

He then observes that religious fundamentalist movements are based upon strict literal interpretations of text, which by their nature, are highly symbolic.

In historical terms, fundamentalism is bound up with the interpretation of a holy book. Protestant fundamentalism in the United States of the nineteenth century (which survives to this day) is characterized by the decision to interpret Scripture literally, especially regarding notions of cosmology. Any form of education that undermines faith in biblical texts, like Darwinism, is rejected. Muslim fundamentalism is also based on the literal interpretation of a holy book.

(ibid: p. 219)

The problem that Eco sees is that fundamentalism often leads to integralism, “a stance whereby one’s religious principles must become the model of political life and the basis of the laws of the state.” Integralism can lead to theocracy, which ultimately leads to totalitarianism. “Every form of integralism contains a certain amount of intolerance for those who don’t share its ideas, but this amount reaches its peak in theocratic forms of fundamentalism and integralism. A theocratic regime is destined to be totalitarian.”

(ibid: p. 219)

As more laws are being passed that are solely based upon religious fundamentalist beliefs, we seem to be moving closer to a threshold that once crossed will find us in the realm of theocracy. This would land us in very dangerous waters, indeed.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading.

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“Between Dr. Watson and Lawrence of Arabia” by Umberto Eco

While they sit quietly in their apartment, Holmes suddenly says, “You are right, Watson, it does seem a very preposterous way of settling a dispute.”

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 203)

The quote is from another brilliant essay written by Umberto Eco and included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. Eco is citing Sherlock Holmes, who deduced that Watson was thinking about how war is a foolish way to deal with a problem. And I agree.

Eco goes on to explain that the biggest problem with the way most countries wage war is that they rely on brute force, as opposed to studying and learning the culture of the opposing country and then addressing the conflict on a socio-anthropological level.

And don’t tell me that when a country is at war, there’s no time to listen to social anthropologists. Rome clashed with the Germanic tribes, but she needed Tacitus to help her understand them. When it comes to clashes between cultures, the conflict can be tackled not only by manufacturing cannons but also by financing scientific research, and this is something that the country that managed to get its hands on the best brains in physics—while Hitler was trying to send them to concentration camps—ought to know perfectly well.

(ibid: p. 206)

But there’s the rub. Too many Americans have a distrust of the intelligentsia, calling them “elitists” with venomous disdain.

The war in Iraq seems to be a conflict begun without consulting the universities, due to the American right’s ancestral mistrust of “eggheads” or, as Spiro Agnew called them, “effete snobs.”

(ibid: p. 208)

It’s been more than 15 years since Eco wrote this, and it feels like the issue that he described has only become more stark. I can only hope that these are the last death throes of a dying paradigm that is about to shift. It’s high time we began valuing intelligence instead of blindly worshipping might and power.

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