There's no doubt about it: Umberto Eco is a brilliant man. He writes dense novels like The Name of the Rose and The Island of the Day Before, he teaches semiotics at the University of Bologna, and he has published numerous books of essays, from the entertaining (How to Travel with a Salmon,) to the academic (A Theory of Semiotics), to the somewhere in between (Serendipidies, Kant and the Platypus). His knowledge of world literature is vast and he writes articles for several Italian newspapers on a variety of subjects. Indeed, a learned individual.
Considering the amount of thinking the man does, it is no wonder a book like Five Moral Pieces [Harcourt & Brace] exists. It was only a matter of time before Eco put together a collection of thoughts on the moral questions of war, the flaws of the press, the existence of God, Fascism and intolerance. Slim to the point where one might be deceived, this is a book full of ideas, of questions and proposed answers. Eco compares war to incest in the sense that, at one time, man did not realize that incest was a taboo. He had to learn this, to understand it through a sort of evolution and growth. His contention is that we have yet to realize what a ultimate evil and sin war is, and thus we are still unenlightened creatures. In an open letter, he asks examines the function of the press and criticizes its habit of dumbing down and padding its pages while making important stories more convoluted and inaccessible. He mixes personal accounts of his childhood liberation from Fascism to imagine a new form of the tyranny. But most of all, he asks the ultimate question: is it necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person?
A probing book, Five Moral Pieces is always interesting and offers well-conceived thoughts on its subjects, most of which concern every human being on the planet. It reaffirms Eco's place as a master essayist. Agree or not, it is always a good idea to get a few of these books under your belt. After all, how sure are you that war is necessary or God does or doesn't exist?