On 23 February 2016, the writer Umberto Eco, who passed away on 19 February at the age of 84, had his “non-religious” funeral. Eco was one of the worst products of Turin and Italian culture in the 20th century. His Turin origins need to be emphasized as Piedmont was a source of great saints in the 19th century — but also of secularist and anti-Catholic intellectuals in the 20th century.
The ‘Turin School’, well described by Augusto Del Noce, passed from idealism to Marxism, while maintaining an anti-Catholic, ‘immanentist’ line, thanks to the influence of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) and Piero Gobetti (1901-1925). After World War II, this cultural line exercised such a strong influence that it attracted quite a few Catholics.
Umberto Eco, born in Alessandria in 1932, became a diocesan leader in Azione Cattolica at the age of 16. He was, as he himself recalls, not only an activist but “a believer in daily communion”.
He took part in the electoral campaign of 1948 by putting up posters and distributing anti-Communist flyers. He subsequently collaborated with the presidency of Azione Cattolica in Rome while studying at the University of Turin, from which he graduated in 1954 with a thesis on the aesthetics of St. Thomas Aquinas. This was later 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? It certainly was a reasoned, convinced, and definitive decision. Eco has said with derision that he lost the faith while reading Thomas Aquinas. However, one doesn’t lose the faith; one rejects it. And the origin of his estrangement from the truth is not to be found in Aquinas but in philosophical nominalism, which is a decadent and deformed interpretation of Thomistic doctrine.
Eco remained, 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 represented by William of Baskerville, the protagonist of Eco’s most famous novel, The Name of the Rose (1940), a book which closes with a nominalist motto: Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus (“the ancient rose exists in name, the bare name is all that we have”).
The essence of the rose (as with all things) is reduced to a name [a word]; all that we have are names, appearances, illusions, no truth, and no certainty. Another character in the book, Adso, affirms: Gott ist ein lautes Nichts (God is pure nothing). In the final analysis, everything is a game, a dance about nothing. This concept is the same in another of Eco’s philosophical novels, Foucault’s Pendulum (1989). Behind the metaphor of the pendulum there is a God who merges with the void, evil, absolute darkness.
The true pendulum of Eco’s thought was, in reality, his vacillation between the absolute rationalism of the Enlightenment and the irrationality of occultism — of the Kabbalah, of gnosis, which he fought against but to which he was nevertheless morbidly attracted. 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) embodies the neo-Kantian version of Turin Enlightenment in the 20th century, Umberto Eco incarnates its neo-libertine version.
One of Eco’s last novels, The Prague Cemetery (2010), is an implicit apology 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 novel’s protagonists, say. And yet, despite all the despicable characters and the criminal acts which fill the book, his pages lack that tragic note which alone can make a literary work great.
Rather, 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 in Hollandaise sauce eaten at Lapérouse on the Quais des Grands-Augustin, l’écrevisse à la bordelaise, or the mousse de volaille at Le Café Anglais on Rue Gramont, and the filets de poularde piqués aux truffes at Le Rocher du Cancale on Rue Montorgueil. Food is the only thing that emerges triumphant from the novel and it 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 almost declared dead as a result of a colossal indigestion.
Technically speaking, Eco was a great juggler because he made a mockery of everyone: his readers, his critics, and most of all the Catholics who invited him to their conferences as if he were some kind of oracle. During the referendum on divorce in 1974, Eco spoke in jest to supporters of divorce from the columns of Espresso [the weekly magazine of the daily La Repubblica] by appealing for an intelligent approach to their propagandistic campaign, with these words:
The referendum campaign must be free from theoretical, reckless, and immediate assumptions, and from seeking to have a one-time, short-term effect. Targeted especially at a public which is easy prey to emotional stress, it will have to sell a positive image of divorce which exactly overturns the emotional appeals of the opposing side…. The themes of this ‘marketing’ campaign should be: divorce is good for the family, divorce is good for women, divorce is good for kids…. 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 blood donations. 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 agencies — dynamic, unscrupulous, democratic — co-ordinate and self-finance support for this type of campaign. All that’s needed is a round of telephone calls, two meetings, and a month of intense work. Destroying a taboo in just a few months should be a mouth-watering challenge for any advertiser who loves his job.
The taboo to be destroyed was the family, which, for a relativist like him, had no reason at all to exist. The destruction of the family in Italy, from 1974 onwards, has continued in successive stages. Eco happily went along with it, leaving the scene on the eve of the approval of homosexual unions — the final outcome of the introduction of divorce some forty years ago. The natural family is thus replaced by an unnatural one.
Relativism celebrates its apparent victory. Umberto Eco contributed significantly to the work of desecrating the natural and Christian order of things. Yet what he will have to answer for is not so much the evil he did but the good he could have done if he had not rejected the Truth. What’s the use of forty honoris causa degrees and the sale of thirty million copies of a single book (The Name of the Rose) if you do not earn eternal life?
The young Azione Cattolica activist could have been a St. Francis Xavier in the mission land which today is Europe. But he did not accept the words that St. Ignatius said to St. Francis Xavier, and which God makes resound in every Christian heart: “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”