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Thus Spake Dustin

I love reading about Eastern Orthodoxy, scripture, and nonfiction works that challenge me to expand my view of the world.


Review of Five Moral Pieces

Five Moral Pieces - Alastair McEwen, Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco, Five Moral Pieces (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2001), translated by Alastair McEwen. Pp. 111. Hardcover $23.00.


I had never read anything by Umberto Eco, and I knew that he is a leading thinker of our time. This was the book I picked up to read to acquaint myself with his philosophy and writing style.


It's a fairly short book. It's comprised of five chapters, which are essentially five independent essays. The essays are: Reflections on War, When the Other Appears on the Scene, On the Press, Ur-Fascism, and Migration, Tolerance, and the Intolerable. This review will comment on two of the essays, and then conclude with some general remarks.


The first essay I want to comment on is Reflections on War. Eco starts the essay by arguing that intellectuals have an obligation to speak out about war. And if they choose to remain silent, then they have an obligation to say why it is that they are silent.


He then progresses to his argument as to why war is not a good option for modern society. This probably comes as no surprise to those familiar with Eco; what did surprise me, however, was the way he made is argument. One would expect an anti-war (pro-peace?) argument to proceed along the lines of how unjust war is due to its inhumanity; however, Eco's argument is more along the lines of how modernity has changed the rules so much that war isn't war anymore. Allow me to list his points:

1 - Nuclear weapons, if used, mean that no one would win. They would only destroy the planet.

2 - War no longer has two clear cut sides. Each side's media can be reporting news from behind 'enemy' lines, which makes it harder to 'demonize' the enemy (e.g., Americans reporting in Baghdad when the U.S. was attacking Iraq). Also, because America is a melting-pot, people who may identify with the enemy may be living among you.

3 - Modern technology and communication means that anyone can communicate (and thus sympathize) with the enemy.

4 - A global economy (and global consumer base) means that war plays havoc with the market.

5 - Modern technology means that war is no longer like a chess game (your enemy moves, and then you move, and so on). Now, it's as if both sides are moving randomly (all at the same time), and may even be attacking pieces of the same color.


Eco concludes that warfare is no longer practical. Instead, we need to evolve a new way to 'war' with one another. He suggests that the new way be a 'cold war.' He writes that is has, "proved a very humane and mild solution in terms of casualties, and cold warfare can even boast victors and vanquished." A very interesting idea.

The other essay I want to comment on is On the Press. This was a very interesting essay, mostly focused on the Italian media. He's arguing that television has destroyed the ability of the media to have engaging conversations and inform the public of important issues. The problem started when people turned to television for their news instead of newspapers. Newspapers, faced with a declining readership, changed its structure to that of the dailies (more entertainment driven, rather than news driven); the dailies respond by changing their structure, as do the monthlies, and so on. It gets so bad, that papers are reporting on what the television, and other papers, are saying about the news, rather than simply reporting the news. He goes on and lists the way the structure inhibits the media from really reporting the news.

He gives two conclusions as to how to solve the issue of the media. He suggests that papers go back to simply reporting a few lines about important events around the world. This way, each reader can be informed about the basic facts of news from around the world. The other solution is to stop treating the papers as a source of entertainment news, and cover events from around the world with in-depth articles. However, he admits that both these solutions require an educated readership to be able to determine what's important for them.


I wish conclude with a few brief comments about this work overall. I greatly enjoyed his arguments, and I found them easy to follow. I did notice that Eco's style of writing and expounding his arguments was similar to C.S. Lewis's. Though they would, no doubt, come to different conclusions, the feel of the argument, for me, was similar. Go figure. At any rate, I recommend this book.