A rose by any other name: Vale Mr Eco

Alexander Lee, History Today

Modernism dominated Italian scholarship for most of the immediate post-war period. Buoyed by the remarkable success of the Italian Communist Party, Marxist approaches to history were in the ascendant, and as long as Palmiro Togliatti was banging at the doors of the Palazzo Chigi, universities in the so-called ‘red belt’ and the major industrial centres of the North were overshadowed by its worldview.

It was in this milieu that Umberto Eco – who died on February 19th 2016 – embarked upon his career as one of Italy’s leading public intellectuals. Yet it was in opposition to this outlook that he defined himself. Although he was many things to many people over the course of his career – semiologist, anthropologist, literary critic, publisher, best-selling novelist – he was, first and foremost, an historian railing against modernism in all its forms.

Eco began to question the empiricists’ faith in objective knowledge while he was studying medieval literature and philosophy at the University of Turin. It was his work on the problem of aesthetics in St. Thomas of Aquinas that planted the first seeds of doubt in his mind.

As he discovered, Aquinas’ notion of beauty centred not on passive viewing, or on some subjective idea of the ‘beautiful’, but on the activity of contemplation and cognition. In other words, we find a rose beautiful not because it is objectively so, or because it conforms to some pattern that we have previously imagined, but because we abstract from its physical form a mental image that we can contemplate and value for its consonance with the qualities of the divine.

Abstract though this may have been, its implications for the study of history were striking. Rather than there being such a thing as a ‘dead reality’, Eco came to believe that we can only see the remains of the past through the lens of the associations they evoke. Whatever character they possess is nothing more than a construct we have assembled from the mass of ideas and thoughts they call to mind. –

Read this revealing obituary of Umberto Eco at History Today …