Umberto Eco: the sad parable of a nominalist
Roberto de Mattei
February 24, 2016
On February 23rd 2016, the writer Umberto Eco, who passed way on February 19th at the age of 84, had his “non-religious” funeral. Eco was one of the worst products of 20th century Italian/ Turin culture. His Turin origins need to be emphasized as Piedmont was a mine of great saints in the 19th century and of secularist, anti-Catholic intellectuals in the 20th century.
The “Turin School”, described well by Augusto Del Noce, passed from idealism to Illuminist-Marxism, maintaining its anti-Catholic, immanentist essence, thanks to the influence of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) and Piero Gobetti (1901-1925). After the Second World War, this cultural line exercised such a strong influence which quite a few Catholics were attracted to.
Umberto Eco, born in Alessandria in 1932, a diocesan leader at the age of 16 in Catholic Action, was, as he himself reveals, not only an activist, but a “daily communicant”. He took part in the 1948 electoral campaign by putting up posters and distributing anti-Communist flyers. He subsequently collaborated with the presidency of Catholic Action in Rome, while studying at the University of Turin, where he graduated in 1954 with a thesis on the aesthetics of St. Thomas Aquinas, afterwards published in the only book of his worth reading (The Aesthetic Problem in St. Thomas, 1956). It was also in 1954 that he abandoned the Catholic faith.
How did his apostasy come about? Certainly it was reasoned, convinced and definitive. Eco said with derision, that he had lost the faith while reading Thomas Aquinas. However, you don’t lose the faith, you reject it and at the origin of his estrangement from the truth is not St. Thomas but philosophical Nominalism, a decadent and deformed interpretation of Thomist doctrine.
Eco was right to the very end, a radical nominalist, for whom there are no universal truths, but only names, signs and conventions. The father of Nominalism, William of Ockham, is portrayed in William of Basekerville, the protagonist of his most famous novel, The Name of the Rose (1940), which closes with a nominalist motto: «Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus». The essence of the rose (as in everything) is reduced to a name [a word]; we have but names, appearances, illusions, no truth and no certainty. Another character in the novel, Adso, states: «Gott ist ein lautes Nichts», “God is pure nothing”. Everything is, in the final analysis, a game, a dance, about nothing. The concept is the same in another philosophical novel of his, Foucault’s Pendulum (1989). Behind the metaphor of the pendulum there is a God who is merged with the void, evil and absolute darkness.
The true pendulum of Eco’s thought, was, in reality, his vacillation between the absolute rationalism of the Enlightment and the irrationality of occultism: the Kabbalah, gnosis, which he fought against but was nevertheless morbidly attracted to. If Nominalism empties reality of any meaning, the inevitable outcome is indeed a fall into irrationality. In order get out of this, all that’s left is absolute skepticism. If Norberto Bobbio (1909-2004) is the neo-Kantian version of Turin Enlightenment in the 20th century, Umberto Eco incarnates its neo-libertine version.
One of his last novels, The Prague Cemetery (2010) is an implicit apologia of the moral cynicism which necessarily follows the absence of what is true and good. In the more than five hundred pages of the book, there isn’t a single passionate ideal, nor a figure moved by love or idealism. “Hate is the true primordial passion. It is love that is an abnormal situation” Eco has Rachkovskij, one of the protagonists, say. In any case, with all the despicable characters and criminal activities the book is stuffed with, his pages lack that tragic note, which is the only thing that makes for a great literary work. The tone is sarcastic of the type of comedy where the author mocks everything and everyone, seeing that the only thing he really believes in are filets de barbue sauce hollandaise eaten at Laperouse al quais des Grands-Augustin, le écrevisses bordelaises or le mousses de Volailles at Café Anglais in rue Gramont and the filets de poularde piqués aux truffes at Rocher du Cancale in rue Montorgueil. Food is the only thing that emerges triumphant from the novel, and is continually celebrated by the protagonist, who confesses: “Food has always satisfied me more than sex. Perhaps an imprint left on me by the priests.” It is not by chance, that in 1992, Eco was taken to hospital and given to be almost dead as a result of colossal indigestion.
Eco was technically a great juggler, given that he made a mockery of everyone: his readers, his critics and most of all the Catholics who invited him to their conferences like he was some kind of oracle. At the time of the referendum for divorce in 1974, he spoke in jest to the supporters of divorce from the columns of “Espresso” * by appealing for intelligent planning in their propagandistic campaign, with the following words: “The referendum campaign will have to be free from supposed theories, unscrupulous, immediate and steered to have effect in a short period of time. Targeted especially at a public which is easy prey to emotive solicitations, it will have to sell a positive image of divorce which exactly overturns the emotive appeals of the opposing side […]. The themes of this “sales” campaign should be: divorce is good for the family, divorce is good for women, divorce is good for children […]. For years Italian advertisers have been experiencing a crisis of identity: well-educated and informed, they know they are the object of sociological criticism, which shows them as faithful servants of consumerist power […]. They attempt free -publicity campaigns in defense of the environment and for the donation of blood. Yet, they feel excluded from the great problems of their time and are condemned to the selling of soap. The battle for the referendum will be the proof of the sincerity of many, oft-declared, civic aspirations. All that’s needed is for a group of expert, dynamic, unscrupulous, democratic agencies to co-ordinate and auto-finance support of this type of campaign. All that’s needed is a round of telephone-calls, two meetings and a month of intense work. The destruction of a taboo in a few short months is a challenge that should make the mouth water of any advertising agent who loves his job […].
The taboo to destroy was the family, which for a relativist like him, had no reason at all to exist. Since 1974, the destruction of the family has continued in successive stages. Eco happily went along with it, leaving the scene [right] on the eve of the approval of homosexual unions - the final outcome of the introduction of divorce some forty years ago. The natural family has been substituted by an unnatural one. Relativism celebrates its apparent victory.
Umberto Eco contributed significantly to the work of desecrating the natural, Christian order of things, yet what he will have to answer for is not so much the evil he did, as much as the good he could have done if he hadn’t rejected the Truth. What’s the use of forty honoris causa degrees and the sale of thirty million copies of one single book (The Name of the Rose) if you don’t gain eternal life? The young, Catholic Action activist could have been a St. Francis Xavier in this mission land which is the Europe of today. Yet he didn’t accept the words that St. Ignatius said to St. Francis Xavier and that God has echoing in every Christian heart: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but suffers the loss of his own soul?”
[*Espresso –weekly magazine of the daily newspaper “La Repubblica” | Translation: Contributor Francesca Romana.]